Thursday, 10 August 2017

Mr. Big's 'Defying Gravity' - Album Review

Mr. Big are one of those bands that have always been hard to pigeonhole. They are mostly lumped in with the hair metal scene, which is understandable give the era in which Mr. Big released their best-known work, but in truth they have always had much more substance than that. Prior to the band's formation in the late 1980s, both guitarist Paul Gilbert and bassist Billy Sheehan were well-known and respected musicians; with both often being heralded as virtuoso of their respective instruments. Gilbert's time in the speed metal act Racer X and Sheehan's tenure in the solo band of Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth had brought both of the musicians many plaudits in the rock and metal worlds, but it was in Mr. Big where they would find their true homes. The band was formed in 1988 and the virtuosic pair were joined by frontman Eric Martin and drummer Pat Torpey. A year later, the band's self-titled debut album was released and the Mr. Big sound was established. On the surface, Mr. Big are a good, old-fashioned hard rock act. The blues-based riffing and soloing that was pioneers in the 1970s by many of the genre's greats formed the basis of Mr. Big's sound, but the commercial sheen of the hair metal world that the band were formed in-amongst is also present. While the band's songs are often simple, memorable hard rock numbers, it is the musical ability of Gilbert and Sheehan that really defined Mr. Big. Both have the ability to really turn on a dime, and this skill lead to the band's knack of occasionally veering off into a off-kilter instrumental section, with the guitar and bass often playing together in a way which is rarely found elsewhere. Martin's warm bluesy voice, which is was different from the higher-pitched sound that was popular at the time, also lent to the band's signature sound and over the years he has proved himself to be a fantastic singer and songwriter - probably one the genre's most underrated stars. Martin, Gilbert, Sheehan, and Torpey have made up Mr. Big for the majority of the band's time in existence, save for a period between 1997 and 2002 when Gilbert was replaced by former Poison guitarist Richie Kotzen. After breaking up in 2002, the band reconvened in 2009 and the original line-up has been together ever since. The band's seventh album What If... was released a year later and was seen as a great comeback for the band. ...The Stories We Could Tell was released in 2014 to less-stellar reviews, and I have to admit that I am still yet to hear this album. Sadly this album did not feature Torpey due to his diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease, with the album's drums being programmed by Torpey and the rest of the band. Torpey's condition has greatly lessened his role in the band, but he is still active in the songwriting, something of which he has always been heavily involved in with Mr. Big. Last month saw the release of the band's ninth album Defying Gravity, their third since their 2009 reunion. With Torpey's condition still preventing him from drumming at full capacity Matt Starr (Ace Frehley; Burning Rain), who has been touring with the band for the past couple of years, has recorded most of, if not all of, the album's drum tracks. Sound wise, this album has a much rawer, bluesier sound than has been featured by the band previously, which definitely has it's pros and cons.

The album gets underway in fine fashion with the hard rocking Open Your Eyes, which opens with a Zeppelin-esque riff that makes the most of the album's rawer production. This gives way to a strident verse, backed by Sheehan's snaking bassline, and a somewhat AOR-inspired chorus with tight vocal harmonies and catchy melodies. This is one the songs on the album that best exemplifies the trademark interplay between Gilbert and Sheehan, with the two often locking into great bluesy grooves to great effect. The little pattern the follows the main riff is a great example of this, and shows their willingness to take a little risk and deviate from the norm. The album's title track seems to start off in a similar fashion, but the chiming guitar melody is surprisingly catchy and light-hearted which makes a nice change from a muscular riffing of the previous number. Once again, Sheehan's bass playing really dominates the verses with his heavily-overdriven instrument growling away to provide the main rhythms as Gilbert plays around him with his intricate leads. The chorus is another good one, but lacks the real killer hook that the previous song had. The highlight for me though is Gilbert's playing throughout, which includes a really tasteful solo and plenty of little licks. This song reminds me of the sound that Europe have been pursuing in recent years and, in fact, the bluesy overtones of this album mean that plenty of comparisons can be drawn. I think Europe did it better, but Mr. Big have also proved it to be a fruitful path to tread. Everybody Needs a Little Trouble is a mid-apced rocker that recalls the band's first couple of albums with a strong classic rock strut backed by a strong marching drum beat. Martin's vocals during the verses are quite different from his normal style, as they are delivered in an-almost snarling whisper, but he returns to his bluesy croon for the sleazy choruses which are packed with attitude. This song also contains Gilbert's first really lengthy solo on the album, which sees him cut loose with plenty of fast licks that are a good contrast to the methodical rhythm the rest of the song possesses. Damn I'm in Love Again is an acoustic-led piece with an-almost whimsical quality. Gilbert's acoustic guitars dominate throughout, and Martin sings the reflective lyrics effortless over the subtle percussion backing. Mr. Big have always done acoustic songs well, and in fact had a big hit with one back in the day, and this is another strong effort in that department. It is quite a short song, but helps to provide some diversity during the album's first half. Mean to Me is quite the opposite of the previous number and opens with a loose, but technically brilliant, guitar riff which sees the band's three musicians locking together perfectly with the unusual rhythms really standing out. The main body of the song is more typical, with a power chord-heavy verse which makes the most of Martin's vocal skills. The strange riff resurfaces in the chorus and somehow the band manage to make it work and fit a vocal melody over the top of it without it ever sounding forced. That has always been one of Mr. Big's skills, and this has helped them from stand out from the crowd over the years. Nothin' Bad ('Bout Feelin' Good) is another slower number, which sees Gilbert's acoustic guitars once again dominating, especially during the early part of the song. Unlike the previous acoustic number, this is more of a rocker and does feature the other members of the band heavily and once again recalls the raw style of Led Zeppelin. While not a bad song, it lacks the spark that many of the album's early numbers had and makes it one of the album's least interesting cuts.

Forever and Back sees the bluesy influence brought to the front again with a fuzzy guitar pattern and some lyrics about lost love sung perfectly by Martin. The song's chorus is a good one, which has a slightly jazzy beat and plenty of wordless backing vocals from the band to add a slight gospel feel. It is another relatively slow song, but it still packs a punch and really shows the raw sound the band aimed for on this album in a good light. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a great guitar solo from Gilbert here which, while following many of the bluesy clichés, really adds to the mood of the piece perfectly. The fuzzy sound continues on She's all Coming Back to Me Now, but the smooth melodies really recall the band's early days with Martin crafting some strong AOR-esque vocal melodies throughout which fit in well despite the rawer sound. Musically the song is less interesting than many of the others here, with a very basic guitar pattern throughout from Gilbert and Sheehan's bass is barely audible. The good chorus saves the song from real mediocrity however and has a light-hearted feel that is easy to get behind and sing along with. 1992 is one of my favourite pieces from the album and tells the story of the band having a hit with To Be With You and how quickly they fell from grace afterwards. The self-effacing lyrics are great and the song contains what is probably the album's best chorus. The opening guitar/bass riff is fantastic too, and really shows what Gilbert and Sheehan can do. In my opinion there is not enough of this kind of interplay on the album, but when it rears it's head it really hits the spot. This song however is really crying out for a smoother production more akin to the band's early albums, showing that their bluesy approach on this album is not without it's flaws. Nothing At All is another strutting mid-paced rocker, which is defined by an excellent drum performance. It is not clear whether the drums are played by Torpey or Starr - as both are credited with playing drums on the album - but I would assume that this is Starr's handiwork given Torpey's condition. The drums lay down a strong groove which is never really broken throughout, which is of course helped by Sheehan's thick bass playing. Songs like this really bring the best out of the album's production, and show that on the whole it was the right decision. The album's last, and longest, number Be Kind is a real bluesy workout with slide guitar sections, lengthy guitar solos, and walking bassline-led verses which sees Martin's croon put to good use. This is definitely not a typical Mr. Big number, but it fits well within the themes and sounds of the album and features some excellent guitar playing from Gilbert that is more restrained than his usual shredded style. Overall, Defying Gravity is another strong effort from Mr. Big that shows they still have plenty left to say and continue to make their somewhat quirky brand of hard rock work. While the rawer production might not be to everyone's taste, and definitely stops a few of the numbers from sounding as good as they could do, this is an album that flows very well and contains plenty of very enjoyable numbers that sit well alongside the more famous numbers from the band's past.

The album was released on 21st July 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Everybody Needs a Little Trouble.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Ten's 'Gothica' - Album Review

Ten are one of those bands who have been putting out solidly enjoyable albums on a regular basis for many years now but continue to fly under the radar of many rock fans. Their sporadic live appearances have done nothing to help their profile in their twenty-plus year career, but their large and impressive back catalogue is certainly one that all rock fans should delve into every so often. Sound wise, Ten are firmly in the 'melodic rock' camp, and comparisons can be drawn between them and British rock stalwarts Magnum. The band's founding member, songwriter, and lead vocalist Gary Hughes certainly has the ear for a catchy melody and has been writing strong melodic rock songs, with surprisingly hard-hitting riffs and subtle keyboard textures, since the band's 1996 debut album X and he rightly should be heralded for his efforts. 2014 and 2015 saw plenty of studio activity from the band, with two albums released in a six month period. 2014's Albion (which I reviewed here) and 2015's Isla de Muerta (which I reviewed here) were both typical of Ten's signature sound, but ended up providing mixed results. The former is one of my favourite albums in the band's catalogue. While I admit that I have not heard many of their albums, Albion is certainly one of the best of those that I have heard. The songwriting was strong, and the melodies carried by Hughes' vocals proved to be extremely catchy. Isla de Muerta on the other hand was a much weaker effort, and definitely felt like the poor relation of the former. While a few songs stood out, the majority of the material just failed to really excite me. Both of those albums were released through the small British rock label Rocktopia Records, but since then the band have returned to their long-time home, the Italian label Frontiers, for their thirteenth studio album Gothica. Hughes, who has written about 95% of the band's catalogue himself, definitely overstretched himself on the Rocktopia Records project, and what is instantly clear from listening to Gothica is how much stronger the material is than Isla de Muerta. This album has clearly had a longer gestation period, and the songs have definitely benefited from this. Sound wise Gothica is classic Ten, although there are moments that are definitely heavier than the norm, with a few meaty riffs for the band's three guitarists to get their heads around. The band's current seven-piece line-up returns from the previous couple of albums, with guitarists Dann Rosingana, Steve Grocott, and John Halliwell; bassist Steve McKenna; keyboardist Darrell Treece-Birch; and drummer Max Yates joining Hughes again to refine his creations and create another strong album of atmospheric melodic hard rock that fits well within the band's established sound. I do not think this album is quite as strong as Albion overall, but there are a couple of really stunning songs here that are worth the price of admission alone.

Ten have never been a stranger to writing lengthier numbers, and this album gets underway with The Grail, a song that pushes eight minutes in length and contains all the hallmarks of the band's sound. Fitting in with the album's title, Hughes starts the song with a simple gothic choir before Treece-Birch's keyboards add a modern electronic sound. The song mostly moves along at a steady mid-pace, with tough power chord riffing and a subtle keyboard backing to help provide a backing for Hughes' voice. He has always been a great singer, and his performance here is no different, with his slightly low vocal style fitting in well with the lush sounds the rest of the band create. Bursts of shredded lead guitar mix well with more delicate piano-led sections to make an interesting and diverse song that ensures the album gets off to a strong start. The lusher sounds of the previous song give way to a heavier riffing in Jekyll and Hide, and there are some grooves throughout that bring to mind early Whitesnake at times. The heavier, bluesy riffs throughout helps the song to move along at a good pace, and the keyboards utilise less-convention sounds to add a little bit of a sci-fi feel at times. The song's chorus is a pretty strong one, and sees Hughes use his expressive voice to good effect as guitar leads cut through the tough rhythms. Travellers is the first real winner on the album however, with a spiky keyboard intro that soon gives way to lush synth textures and Hughes' mournful vocal performance. The song initially seems as if it is going to be a ballad, but it builds up slowly towards a slower, heavier verse section before exploding into one of the album's best choruses. The keyboards are always prominent throughout and really help to create the song's excellent atmosphere. Hughes' vocals here are stunning, and he shows again here why he is one of the most underrated rock singers ever. I have compared his style to that of Roy Khan's in the past, and this is a song that definitely shows that that comparison is valid. He does not have the mysticism of the former Kamelot frontman, but his voice definitely has the same tone. While Ten are usually fairly consistent, every so often they have the ability to really pull it out of the bag and craft a really excellent song. A Man for all Seasons is one of those, and it tells the tale of Henry VIII and his disillusion of the Monasteries. It starts with a renaissance-inspired instrumental section that sounds like something you might find on a Blackmore's Night album, before taking off with a keyboard-heavy riff and a driving drum beat from Yates. The verses are slower, and full of McKenna's snaking basslines, and these are the perfect backings for Hughes' historical lyrics. Again, the song is quite lengthy and really makes use of the guitarists' skills with lots of excellent bursts of prog metal soloing that sits perfectly atop the pomp rock backing. The chorus is the album's best, with twisting vocal melodies that are very easy on the ear and stick immediately in the brain. This is easily my favourite song on the album, and one of my favourite Ten songs ever. Sadly In My Dreams is almost the opposite, and shows that Ten are just as capable of writing a bit of a howler as they are a classic! The music is decent enough, with some heavier riffing, but the lyrics are a collection of lust clichés that even David Coverdale would steer well clear of! The less that is said about this song the better I think, so we shall move on!

Thankfully The Wild King of Winter is an improvement. The song builds up slowly from a synth and clean guitar intro, and soon bursts into one of the heaviest riffs on the album with a bit of a prog metal feel and storms along at a decent pace. Treece-Birch's keyboards stab in and out of the mix in a dramatic way to help give the song some urgency, but overall this song belongs to the guitarists. The song's chorus is a bit more overtly melodic, and less heavy, but most of all this song relies on the strong metal atmosphere that it creates with the fast riffing and the booming drums. As is fitting for a song of this nature, there is a great neo-classical guitar solo towards the end, which then morphs seamlessly into a keyboard solo, which is a nice change as this is something that the band do not employ too often. Paragon is a gorgeous piano-led ballad that really brings the best out of Hughes' voice, and lets his deep tones really ring through with a the dense piano and synth backing. Guitars and drums do join in for the chorus, and naturally as a result the song becomes somewhat heavier, but the darker mood never leaves the the piano always remains a strong presence throughout. Effects-heavy lead guitar passages are employed throughout and these helps to add some emotional weight. This song is another of the album's best moments, and shows Hughes' songwriting and vocal style at their best. Opening with some circus sounds, Welcome to the Freak Show is a strong up beat rocker that even seems to pay a little tribute to the hair metal scene in place. The main riff borrows quite a bit from Michael Jackson's Beat It, which is slightly jarring when you first hear it, but overall this is another very good song with plenty of overt melodies and a great energy created by the riffing and the plentiful bluesy rock soloing. Based on Mary Shelley's famous vampire novel La Luna Dra-Cu-La is another heavier, more upbeat piece that is based around a twisty riff and some standout drumming from Yates - especially during the instrumental sections where he breaks loose far more than he does usually. The keyboard backs the guitar in a way that brings to mind classic Deep Purple, and everything is held together by another strong vocal performance from Hughes. The song's guitar solo is one of the best on the album too, and contains lots of flashy runs. Into Darkness is another piano-led piece with some truly stunning vocals and a slightly theatrical feel. While many parts of the song have the feel of a ballad, there are still plenty of heavier bits to make the song have quite a dynamic overall feel. Like the album's opening number, this is a song that contains many of the things that really define Ten's sound, so is a good one to round the album out on. Overall, Gothica is another enjoyable album from Ten that includes a few really stand-out songs. There are low points, but this is an album that gets more right than it gets wrong, and is worth hearing for A Man for all Seasons alone.

The album was released on 7th July 2017 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Travellers.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Stone Sour's 'Hydrograd' - Album Review

In the modern world of big, arena-filling hard rock bands, Stone Sour are one of the bigger names of the genre. Stone Sour are of course famous for being the 'other' band of nu-metal pioneers Slipknot's frontman Corey Taylor, but Stone Sour's genesis actually pre-dates his joining the Slipknot family. Stone Sour was formed in 1992 by Taylor, but was placed on a hiatus without releasing any material when Taylor joined Slipknot and that band started to gain traction. The songs written during this initial period of Stone Sour's history were eventually expanded upon and released on the band's self-titled debut album in 2002. The grunge-based alternative rock was significantly different to Taylor (and, at the time, guitarist Jim Root's) work with Slipknot; and Stone Sour allowed Taylor to show off a different side to his songwriting and vocal talents. Despite Stone Sour's success, they have always had to play second fiddle to Slipknot's heavy touring schedule. This was especially true during the early 2000s when Slipknot were at their real commercial peak, but Stone Sour's second album, 2006's Come What(ever) May, really made people sit up and take notice. Come What(ever) May introduced a more streamlined hard rock sound that, despite still containing influences from metal and grunge, managed to attract a large new fanbase. People like me who never got into Slipknot were exposed to a whole new side of Taylor and his melodic songwriting style. Since the success of Come What(ever) May, Taylor has dedicated roughly equal time to both Slipknot and Stone Sour, with Stone Sour releasing three more studio albums since which have all received critical acclaim. The band's most recent couple of albums, the two-part House of Gold & Bones albums that were released separately in 2012 and 2013, in particular were well-received. The band's songwriting matured greatly on those albums, and the concept running between the two really helped them feel like one complete work. Much is made of Taylor and his songwriting for the band, but Stone Sour is much more than just Taylor. Since the House of Gold & Bones albums however, Stone Sour has undergone some fairly major line-up changes. Root, who was seen as one of the main songwriters alongside Taylor, left the band in 2013 to focus on writing songs for Slipknot and was replaced by Christian Martucci - a relative unknown who had played guitar for Dee Dee Ramone during the early 2000s. Johny Chow (Cavalera Conspiracy) is Stone Sour's other newest recruit, having joined the band in 2012 for the House of Gold & Bones touring cycle. Despite both Martucci and Chow playing with the band for a few years now, and appearing on the two Burbank cover EPs, the band's latest album Hydrograd is the first full-length effort to feature both of their musical and songwriting talents. Hydrograd is the band's sixth overall album and carries on the grungy hard rock sound the band have been working on throughout the last 15 or so years. The melodic songwriting style of the band's recent efforts remain, and this is an album that continues their impressive legacy.

The album gets underway with the instrumental intro YSIF, which is largely built around a strident chord pattern played on the guitar, but some Japanese-esque melodies swirl around underneath to give the piece a unique feel. The atmospherics build up as the piece moves along and soon explodes into Taipei Person/Allah Tea - the album's first true song. The song is built around a riff that sounds like something a NWOBHM band might have come up with in the early 1980s, and Martucci makes his presence instantly felt with a doomy guitar lead. Taylor mostly uses his clean vocals on Stone Sour's songs, but this one makes use of his rougher edge at times as he barks through the energetic verses, which are backed by some unconventional drumming from Roy Mayorga. Big choruses are often a part of Stone Sour's identity, and there are a few on this album. This one soars with strong melodies, before Martucci launches into his first shredded solo on the album. He is joined in his venture by fellow guitarist Josh Rand, who has been a part of the band since the re-activation in the early 2000s, and he makes a rare appearance on lead guitar here sharing the stage with Martucci. Knievel has Landed is a less interesting number, but opens with a strong bass riff from Chow. There are definitely some strong musical moments throughout the song, with a tough guitar riff that resurfaces often throughout the verses, but the chorus is a little weak for the band's usual standards and this fails to let the song really take off. Some of the rawer moments, like the pre-chorus sections, are a little too much akin to Slipknot's style for my liking which hampers my enjoyment of the song somewhat. The album's title track follows, and showcases some of the band's grunge influences nicely with a raw, booming drum sound and sludgy guitar riffs that make their impact through slow power. While Taylor still sings in his usual anthemic style, and does not adopt the usual drawl that is key to that genre's sound, his strong vocal performance shines through and sits well with the heavier riffing. The song is chorus-less, which works quite well with with the main guitar riffs taking centre stage. The guitar playing throughout is strong too, with another big solo from Martucci towards the end that showcases his shredding style. Song #3 is one of the album's singles, and features soaring melodies and a more accessible overall sound. Fans of the bigger anthems on Come What(ever) May will lap this song up, as it is built around a strong vocal performance from Taylor, with the music purely serving as a backing for the lyrics. The chorus is one of the album's best, with a 1980s stadium rock feel as he belts out the lyrics. A small guitar solo provides the one flash of musical virtuosity in the song, but this is definitely one made for hearing and having the crowd sing along passionately. Despite some heavier riffs, Fabuless is another song that is built around a big chorus that is sure to become a live favourite. Taylor's harsh vocals are brought out more here, and there are some sections that benefit from a large gang vocal choir for extra power. While Stone Sour's songs are mostly slightly lighter than this song in tone, it is good when they break into heavier territory once in a while to give their albums extra weight. The Witness Trees is another slower, grungy song with ringing clean guitar melodies that sit nicely atop a snaking bassline. The chorus sees the song ramp up somewhat, and the melodies are quite strong, but mostly this song has a more restrained tone than most of the rest of the album. There's an expressive solo from Martucci too that works well in the slower context of the song.

Rose Red Violent Blue (This Song is Dumb & So Am I), despite having some really interesting guitar passages, is probably one of the album's least interesting moments. The slower verses have a slightly strange rhythm, but this clashes with the punky energy the rest of the song seems to want to promote. It just comes across as a bad mix, with the song's two elements not really meshing well together. Thank God It's Over is a mid-paced rocker with a great in-your-face guitar riff that moves along at a bouncy pace and acts as a strong backing for Taylor's vocals. Despite the relatively simple nature of the song, it still manages to create a really strong groove that carries the song throughout and gives it a slightly addictive feeling with the consistency of the song's rhythms. St. Marie is a ballad, and has a bit of a country feel with some lap steel provided by Joel Martin which creates a floaty atmosphere throughout as the bands two guitarists strum their acoustic guitars. This is a song which is definitely different to the norm for Stone Sour, but it works really well and Taylor's emotional vocal delivery helps to give the song the band's signature sound. The addition of the lap steel playing really adds a lot here. Most bands would have probably added a subtle piano backing instead, but I like the country feel the lap steel gives the song as the lengthy note slides cut through the mix. Mercy is a strong up tempo rocker and this works well when coming straight after the album's gentlest number. The riffing throughout is also pretty strong here, and contains another very singable chorus that is sure to be a hit live if the band choose to play it. It also contains a pretty technical guitar from Martucci that starts off with some basic shred but moves through a few almost neo-classical licks before a heavier riff kicks in and it is not long before the song's chorus is once again taking centre stage. A piano intro gives the listener the impression that Whiplash Pants might be another slower song, but it is quite the opposite and soon takes off at a fast pace with a hard-hitting riff and vocals from Taylor which boarder on a harsh delivery in places. The decent chorus is the song's most melodic part, but mostly this is a heavier piece which definitely takes a lot from early 2000s nu-metal, with some almost Machine Head-esque parts at times. It is quite an enjoyable song, but the nu-metal elements may put some people off. Friday Knights starts off with a chaotic main riff, but soon descends into a murky verse with chiming clean guitars and a mournful vocal delivery. The song is strange one, with lots of different vibes crammed into a short space of time, but it actually works quite well with a good mix of heavier riffs and more sparse clean sections. It shows that Stone Sour have quite a broad writing style and do not wish to always restrict themselves to the same basic song structures or templates. Somebody Stole my Eyes is another faster, heavier song which definitely takes influence from the more melodic end of Slipknot's more recent material. This works well in this song, and it manages to create quite a bit of power as the album winds down towards the final song. That final song is another slower number, When the Fever Broke, with murky piano lines and a subtle string section that adds colour throughout. Despite this extra instrumentation, it is quite a sparse song but this helps to pack quite an emotional weight and is a great contrast the frantic previous number. Stone Sour have done better ballads in the past, but this is still a fitting end to this varied album. Overall, Hydrograd is a another really enjoyable album from Stone Sour that throws a few new sounds into the band's established template. While it could have done with having a bit of the fat trimmed, as it is probably a couple of songs too long, it still contains plenty of very good songs that will satisfy the band's large fanbase.

The album was released on 30th June 2017 via Roadrunner Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Song #3.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Styx's 'The Mission' - Album Review

During the late 1970s and the early 1980s, American rockers Styx were ever-present features of radio stations across the world. While many bands become big stars after only a couple of big singles, Styx are one of those bands that built their reputation up over years of touring and regular album releases. Styx's early 1970s sound definitely took a lot of influence from progressive rock, but as time went on they moved towards a more streamlined hard rock sound that had an accessible and theatrical sound. The arrival of singer, guitarist, and songwriter Tommy Shaw in 1975 proved to be a turning point for the band and their sixth album, released the following year as Crystal Ball, was the start of the Styx we know today. Shaw's smooth melodic rock compositions mixed well with the diverse songwriting styles of the band's two founders James Young and Dennis DeYoung, and the pomp rock sound that the band became known for was born. The run of albums released 1976 and 1983 is a very strong one, and contains the two bona fide classics The Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight. Styx then broke up in 1985 following the tumultuous tour following 1983's divisive rock opera Kilroy Was Here. Luckily for rock fans, the band reunited five years later for a brief spell, and then permanently in 1995. There has been a version of Styx out on tour ever since and, despite quite a few major line-up changes in this time, they still remain a popular live act. Guitarists Young and Shaw remain from the band's classic era, and they are joined by keyboardist and vocalist Lawrence Gowan (who replaced DeYoung in 1999), drummer Todd Sucherman (who has been with Styx since the 1995 reunion), and bassist Ricky Phillips (who has been in the band since 2003). Despite being maintaining a heavy touring schedule over recent years, the last new Styx album of original material was released in 2003. The patchy and fairly forgettable Cyclorama never really took hold, and recently the band have been content to tour the nostalgia circuit playing their most well-known songs to crowds all over the world. This all seemed to change a couple of years ago and the band began writing and recording a new album in secret. This new album was announced earlier this year as The Mission, and the band promised a return to their classic sound; mixing some of their early progressive rock influences with their trademark pomp rock sound. I have to admit I was not expecting a new Styx album to be released this year, but it was a welcome surprise. Shaw remains a fantastic songwriter and it seemed a shame for this talent to be put onto the back-burner, and Gowan has never really had a chance to make his mark on the band's catalogue with only a limited role in the Cyclorama songwriting. The Mission, a concept album about a mission to Mars, really makes the best of Shaw and Gowan's talents. With a story line written by Shaw and producer Will Evankovich, Shaw and Gowan's songs (as well as contributions by Young) really come to life and make The Mission the most interesting thing Styx have put their name to for quite some time.

To set the scene for this epic tale of space adventures, the mostly-instrumental Overture really digs back into Styx history for inspiration with Gowan's flurry of retro-sounding keyboard melodies and a few effect-heavy vocal sections. It is quite short, but segues perfectly into Gone Gone Gone, the album's first true song. Gowan takes the vocals on this song as the song is driven by Shaw and Young's tough guitar rhythms and the odd burst of progressive organ playing from Gowan himself. One thing that is clear right away is how similar the sound of this song is to the band's classic late 1970s sound. The vocal harmonies in the chorus are spot on, with plenty of high notes, and the 'pomp rock fused with progressive influences' sound sound as fresh as it did when The Grand Illusion came out in 1977. Gone Gone Gone is a short but explosive piece, but it really makes it mark. Hundred Million Miles from Home is sung by Shaw, and is a more mid-paced affair with Beatle-esque vocal melodies and a snaking groove throughout which is partly provided by founding member Chuck Panozzo's bassline. Panozzo has not been a full member of the band now for quite a few years for health reasons, but his talents are used well on this song and it is great to see that he can still cut it. The song's chorus is another catchy moment, but is less overt than the previous number. It is no less powerful however, and is a strong effort. Young takes the lead on Trouble at the Big Show which has a Hendrix-esque main riff that is drenched in wah and attitude. Young has always been the weakest vocalist of the band for me, but he does well here with his low voice which contrasts well with Gowan's soaring backing vocals during the atmospheric chorus. The lead guitar work, presumably also courtesy of Young, is great too and really cuts through Sucherman's bluesy shuffle with ease. Locomotive is another Shaw number and it really takes the listener back to the 1970s with an atmospheric intro with lots of retro-sounding keyboards and a prominent acoustic guitar pattern. Shaw's voice has not deteriorated at all throughout the years and he sounds as great as he did when he first joined the band. Many singers' voices suffer over the years, but Shaw sounds as clear as he always did. The song gradually builds up over it's five minute length and slowly adds layers with tougher bursts of bluesy guitar riffing and Hammond organ. The guitar solo is excellent too, and has real classic prog feel to it with lots of carefully constructed phrases and emotional note-bends. This song draws comparisons with the Styx oldie Man in the Wilderness, and it is easy to see why. If any listener was not already convinced that this new Styx album was a winner, then the awesome Radio Silence should be all that is required for someone to form that view. Shaw takes the lead again, and the song starts out slowly with spacey keyboards and a somewhat mournful vocal performance that gradually builds up towards a stratospheric chorus with some of the band's trademark vocal harmonies. The mix of acoustic and electric guitars throughout is also something that Styx employed a lot in the past, so this touch really helps to turn the clocks back. Towards the end the song moves into a tougher hard rock section with a earth-shaking Hammond organ backing and some Queen-esque lead guitars. A final reprise of the chorus really hits home just how good the song is, and this could well be the best individual song the band have done since the efforts on 1978's Pieces of Eight.

The Greater Good is a duet between Gowan and Shaw, and the former gets things off to a good start with a theatrical piano line and effortless vocals. Gowan has the rockier voice of the two, with a slightly gravelly tone, so he can conjure up more power, but the contrast between his voice and Shaw's lighter more melodic tone works well here with the two alternating parts throughout as the piano constantly providing a strong musical backing. There is another great guitar solo here too that really explodes out of nowhere and hits the spot. The album's second half has more of a progressive feel with little musical interludes and a more spacey feel. Time May Bend and Ten Thousand Ways seem to morph into one song, with Gowan singing the former in his melodramatic way as Sucherman's drums crash around him and he lays into his retro-sounding synths for a huge sound. A schizophrenic guitar solo adds to this feel perfectly, which sits atop the odd drum pattern to create a great contrast with the song's decent chorus. Ten Thousand Ways acts as a coda to Time May Bend, and is dominated by rolling piano and a repeated vocal line which is sung by the group in harmony. Red Storm is the album's progressive epic at just over six minutes in length. Shaw once again takes the lead and his songwriting style really shines through here with lots of tricky acoustic guitar melodies early on with a chiming piano backing. The band's progressive influences really shine through here as the song is much heavier on atmosphere and feel than riffing. The acoustic guitars are a constant presence, and Shaw's vocals constantly shine with his clean, high singing style suiting the song's vibe perfectly. Plenty of the Styx harmonies are used throughout, especially during the small choruses, but mostly Shaw is left to sing alone. The drumming towards the song's second half is excellent, with a section that almost includes a drum solo under the music before the song launches into a slightly heavier section that includes a dual-guitar solo and Phillips' rumbling bassline. Styx have not sounded this inspired for a while, and as the song fades out during Gowan's keyboard solo you really have to marvel at the band's sudden burst of creativity. All System's Stable is a tiny interlude which leads into Gowan's piano showcase Khedive which is a chance for him to show off his classically-influenced playing. The song is mostly instrumental, save for a few effects-heavy vocal lines, and is largely focused on Gowan. Some more of the Queen-esque guitar lines come in towards the end however, but this appearance is only fleeting and it is soon back to the rolling piano melodies which come to abrupt halt before the album moves into the penultimate song The Outpost. This is Gowan's last vocal effort on the album and again builds up slowly with his keyboards dominating, but soon the guitars kick in for what is probably my favourite chorus on the album. Styx have always written great choruses but this is a real winner with a triumphant feel and plenty of big vocal harmonies. Some of the heavier riffs here even have a bit of a Dream Theater vibe, which is fleeting but very fun. Shaw takes the lead on the album's closing number Mission to Mars which again makes good use of Beatle-esque melodies and plenty of acoustic guitars. Given the more atmospheric pieces that have filled the latter part of this album, this more carefree piece seems to make the come full circle which works really nicely. Overall, The Mission is easily the best Styx album for decades. No-one was expecting a new album from Styx after all these years and even when it was announced I doubt many were expecting it to be this good. It is quite rare that I am this surprised by new music, but this is one of my favourite releases of the year already and I can see myself playing this one to death!

The album was released on 16th June 2017 via Universal Music Enterprises. Below is the band's promotional video for Gone Gone Gone.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Iced Earth's 'Incorruptible' - Album Review

Iced Earth are definitely one of the most dependable and consistent bands in the metal world. Since forming in 1985, and especially since releasing their self-titled debut album in 1990, Iced Earth have been one of the standard bearers of traditional heavy metal. While elements of thrash, power, and even progressive metal have been woven into the band's core sound at various points throughout their 30-plus year career, Iced Earth have mostly stuck to the same musical template on each of their previous eleven studio albums. Famed for having a lengthy list of former band members, this consistency is down to the songwriting style of band leader, guitarist, and lead-songwriter Jon Schaffer. While many other excellent musicians have added their magic to the band over the years, it is Schaffer that has written the lion's share of the band's back catalogue and who's instantly recognisable riffing style defines the band's sound. In my opinion, Schaffer is the best rhythm guitarist is metal, and is certainly one of the best riff-writers in the genre. It will surprise no-one then to learn that the band's latest effort, which is titled Incorruptible, is another classic Iced Earth release that is backed with a good mix of faster, thrash-inspired numbers and more emotionally-charged mid-paced rockers. Even given the band's heritage, it is fair to say that Iced Earth have been on a real run of form of late. The band's current (and fifth overall) frontman Stu Block joined the band in 2011 and Iced Earth have been a reborn force since. Dystopia, released in the same year as Block's arrival, is a real modern classic and is one of my favourite Iced Earth releases. The lengthy world tour that followed was the longest the band had undertaken for quite some time and made up for a few quiet years previously. The follow-up album, released in 2014 as Plagues of Babylon (which I reviewed here), was not quite as strong but still contained plenty of winning numbers. Another lengthy tour followed that year with the band really re-cementing their status as a fantastic live act. A couple of quieter years followed while Schaffer recovered from some much-needed surgery and the band worked on the building of their new headquarters and studio Independence Hall. The songwriting for this new album took place during this downtime too and the album was recorded at the new HQ towards the back end of last year. Being an Iced Earth album there is of course some new blood represented on Incorruptible. Schaffer, Block, and bassist Luke Appleton all return from the previous album, and they are rejoined by long-time drummer Brent Smedley, for his fourth stint in the band, who sat out of the previous album cycle because of family reasons. Long-time lead guitarist Troy Seele left the band last year due to pressures taking care of his autistic son, and was replaced by Jake Dreyer (White Wizzard; Witherfall) who has contributed many memorable leads and solos throughout this album. Schaffer's compositions once again dominate the material here (the past couple of albums have been some of the more collaborative in the band's history) but Block and Appleton have also made choice songwriting contributions here to help diversify the album.

While not packing quite the same punch as the opening numbers of the band's past couple of releases, Great Heathen Army gets Incorruptible off to a strong start. The song builds up slowly over the course of an atmospheric intro, which makes good use of a Gregorian-style choir, as a orchestral and percussive backing creates somewhat of a gothic feel. It is not long however before a stomping guitar pattern kicks in which leads into a thrashy riff with some high-pitched vocal screams from Block and the first shredded lead from Dreyer. The song is a pretty fast effort, with lots of Smedley's trademark double bass drumming and an impassioned vocal performance as Block delivers his Viking-inspired lyrics. While the chorus is not as powerful as it probably should be, the harmony guitars make it stand out and Dreyer impresses immediately afterwards with his first proper solo. Block shows here that he is constantly improving as a vocalist and continues to forge his own sound within the band. A section after the first solo that focuses on his falsetto is extremely powerful and contrasts well with his deeper vocal stylings elsewhere. Black Flag, the first of two songs co-written by Appleton, is a tale of swashbuckling piracy. This is not packed with Alestorm's humour however, but is instead a true Iced Earth classic packed full of high-energy riffs and guitar melodies. The bass-heavy intro is somewhat reminiscent of the Iced Earth oldie Damien; and the Iron Maiden-esque twin guitar harmonies that follow show that Schaffer often still wears his influences on his sleeve. The song is at first a bit of a slower-paced chug, but soon speeds up following a scream from Block. While the song builds towards a chorus that never really comes, the song proves to a be a grower with a few distinct sections and some folky guitar leads that fit in with the lyrical themes. While Iced Earth have always done the faster, heavier songs well; I believe it is their more mid-paced emotional songs that they are the most known for. Raven Wing is one of those, and is a great example of a style which has served the band well. From the acoustic intro to the heavier choruses, this is a song that brings back memories of the band's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes era and allows Block to inject some real emotion into his vocals. While he is still prone to unleashing his best Matt Barlow (who is, of course, the band's most well-known frontman) impression on these kinds of songs, he still manages to sound convincing and this allows the band to carry on one of their traditions. Dreyer also really impresses here, with lots of great guitar playing, including a gorgeous bluesy solo that sits atop Schaffers' acoustic playing. This the explodes into a heavier, faster solo which shows the diversity of the man's playing and the talent he brings to the band. The Veil is a similar song with some vocal parts from Block which almost sound like pure cries of anguish. While Raven Wing has it's heavier, faster moments; this song mostly moves along at a much slower pace with plenty of Schaffer's chiming clean guitar arpeggios and Appleton's prominent bass playing. After two slower numbers, Seven Headed Whore ensures the album does not get too bogged down in the darker emotions of these songs with three minutes of pure thrash. Block turns in possibly his best vocal performance on an Iced Earth song to date, with some banshee screams that rival the style of the other famous former Iced Earth frontman Tim 'Ripper' Owens. This is an instantly catchy song, with an anthemic chorus and a hard-hitting pre-chorus with Block's falsetto vocals and Smedley's extremely fast footwork. Dreyer's extremely fast bursts of shred in the middle of the song are the icing on the cake, and help to round out one of the band's most energetic efforts yet.

The Relic - Part 1 is another mid-paced number with a really hypnotic rhythm guitar melody throughout and some great bluesy leads from Dreyer. This song is one of Block's lyrical efforts, and given the it's title it seems this could be the first part of a new epic song sequence. Iced Earth has always done concepts and lyrics bridges between albums very well, and this song could easily be the start of another saga. While there are certainly stronger songs here, the relentless, hard-hitting style keeps the song interesting despite a lack of any real stand-out melodies. The atmospheric closing section is excellent however, and I really hope the themes explored here are expanded upon in the future as the song's title would suggest. Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors), a lengthy instrumental piece, is easily the album's weakest cut for me. Iced Earth have never been one to excel at instrumental pieces, as they lack the virtuoso players to truly make them work, and this effort is no different. It goes on for a good couple of minutes longer than it should and is made up of riffs which really are not any of Schaffer's best. I do like the quieter sections which make use of traditional Native American pan-pipes however, as this is something the band has not really explored previously, but overall I feel this the one real blemish on what is an otherwise strong album. Despite a deceivingly mellow intro, Brothers turns out to be a real anthem and is the antidote the lengthy instrumental that preceded it. Schaffer's crunching power chords really drive the meat of the song, and the chorus is one of the album's best with Block's lyrics of camaraderie and unity. I can see this song becoming a real live staple with it's unifying message and singable melodies. The riffing is a little simplistic compared to the band's usual style, but it works well in this instance to create a great headbanging rhythm and a true traditional heavy metal feel. The guitar solo echoes this too and does not rely on the shredded speed that many of the other solos here utilise, instead opting for more old-school phrasing. Defiance, which is Appleton's other songwriting contribution, opens with a burst of neo-classical shredding before a weighty riff kicks in that sounds a little different to anything the band have done before. Despite this, the song is mostly classic Iced Earth that grows over multiple listens as the subtle melodies and slightly downbeat chorus really sink in. I like it that Appleton has made some strong songwriting contributions on both his studio outings with the band now. While I love Schaffer's songwriting, it is always great when other members of the band take up some of slack as this helps to keep things fresh. While Dreyer joined the band after the bulk of the songwriting for this album was complete, I hope he sticks around long enough to contribute to the next album as I imagine his efforts will be as strong as Appleton's. The album's final song, Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862), is a nine-minute plus epic and the first lengthy song the band have done in while. Iced Earth have always excelled at longer, more progressive efforts and this one is a real winner with a great gang-vocal led chorus, atmospheric sections, and a lengthy folky instrumental mid-section that often recalls Thin Lizzy's Black Rose. The song tells the bloody story of the Irish Brigde at the Battle Of Fredericksburg in the American Civil War. Schaffer has always been a real student of American military history and his passion for that really shines through in songs like this. Comparisons can obviously be drawn to the Gettysburg trilogy on 2004's The Glorious Burden, but this is less progressive and more out-and-out heavy metal. It is a real future classic than ensure the album ends on a true high. Overall, Incorruptible is a really strong album from a band that have been delivering the goods now for many years. Iced Earth's style is instantly recognisable and this album proves again why they are held in such high regard across the globe.

The album was released on 16th June 2017 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Seven Headed Whore.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie's 'Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie' - Album Review

Since the much-loved singer/songwriter Christine McVie rejoined British rock pioneers Fleetwood Mac in 2014, fans have been crying out for a new album. Her addition to the band completed the band's classic Rumours-era line-up which was active between 1974 and 1987 and recorded five studio albums that sold a staggering amount of copies. While a hugely successful world tour followed, and reports of recording sessions reported in the press, the alleged new material never surfaced. Both McVie and Lindsey Buckingham spoke fairly regularly about their desire to write and record together once again, but it seemed that Stevie Nicks was against the idea and would not commit to writing songs for the project or setting time aside for work in the studio. Fleetwood Mac have not really been a recording act for a while now, with their last full length studio album, the lengthy and patchy Say You Will, being released in 2003 (not including 2013's digital EP Extended Play). With Nicks once again ensconced in her solo career following the conclusion of Fleetwood Mac's latest tour, Buckingham and McVie decided to expand on some of their early demos and create their own album of new songs. This album was finally released last month under the simple moniker Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie and saw the duo return to the sound that gave them so much success in the 1970s and 1980s. While this album was advertised as an album of duets, that is not strictly true as Buckingham and McVie take turns at singing lead throughout and each front five of the album's ten songs. The Rumours-era line-up of Fleetwood Mac was always the product of three solo artists, with each songwriter having an instantly recognisable style that complimented each other perfectly. Buckingham's edgy, rawer pop-rock provided some bite to the band; Nicks' romantic, bohemian fairy tales provided the magic; and McVie's smooth pop compositions were the calming element with a more straight-ahead and melodic approach. Of course Nicks' elements are missing from this new album, but Buckingham and McVie compensate for that and pick up where they left off on 1987's Tango in the Night - the last Fleetwood Mac album they both expressly worked on together. For help with this new album Buckingham and McVie called in the help of the Fleetwood Mac rhythm section of bassist John McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood. With Buckingham also credited as having performed bass and drums on the album their exact contributions are unclear, but their inclusion here is another sign that many of these songs were originally meant to be Fleetwood Mac numbers. Both Buckingham and McVie handle the album's keyboards, along with Mitchell Froom who co-produced the album along with Buckingham and Mark Needham. Everything is wrapped up by Buckingham's unique and instantly recognisable guitar playing, and his off-kilter styles are all over this album.

The album opens with the Buckingham-led track Sleeping Around the Corner, which started life as an iTunes-exclusive bonus track on his 2011 solo album Seeds We Sow. This is a new version of the song with McVie's contributions, but it has all the hallmarks of a classic Buckingham pop/rock number. Jangly guitar chords and percussion open the song up, before Buckingham's breathy vocals join the fray in his classic style. The song does not take long to get going, and it soon explodes into a fiery chorus with frantic drumming and strong vocal melodies which sees Buckingham and McVie harmonising well together. Buckingham certainly has an idiosyncratic songwriting style, and this song fits perfectly in his usual mould with catchy melodies and a slightly off-kilter edge. Feel About You is McVie's first contribution and it is clear from the outset that her vocal ability has certainly diminished during her years away from Fleetwood Mac. Her once crystal clear voice has fogged up somewhat, but this is something that happens with age and you soon get used to her new smokier tones. The glockenspiel-led intro soon leads into a upbeat poppy number with another strong chorus, with some catchy wordless vocal sections, and driving drum beat that definitely sounds like one of Fleetwood's contributions with his staccato and leaden style. McVie's keyboards sparkle throughout the song as they did throughout many of her best Fleetwood Mac contributions, and it is great to see her back writing new material. In My World is one of the best songs on the album and is a real gem from Buckingham that definitely could have appeared on Tango in the Night thirty years ago. The slightly floaty feel that many of the classic Fleetwood Mac songs had is back here with McVie's keyboard presence and a driving bassline helps to add weight. Buckingham has not suffered from the same vocal deterioration as McVie sadly seems to have, and he sounds great here - especially during the melodic chorus which is packed full of poppy sensibilities which clash with the somewhat abrasive guitar playing throughout. There are even breathy wordless sections which recall the classic single Big Love. Red Sun makes good use of McVie's deeper voice with a slightly dark vibe throughout, despite the song's poppy overall feel. Buckingham really cuts loose with his guitar here too with lots of subtle little leads during the verses that are something out of the ordinary for him. There is also a traditional guitar solo from him, which again is not something that he makes use of too often in his songwriting. Like many of the songs here there is a strong chorus and McVie's keyboards really dominate with uplifting feel-good vibe that is contrast to the murkier verses. Love is Here to Stay opens with one of Buckingham's busy guitar melodies, which is something that has really characterised his playing over the years. I have always thought that he is one of the most underrated guitarists out there, and his ear for melody and strange rhythms are what make him so great. This song is a little more atmospheric and uses his guitar to create a hypnotic melody before a percussive chorus comes in with layers of keyboards and ethereal backing vocals.

McVie's contributions to the Fleetwood Mac canon were often gentle ballads, but Too Far Gone is a funky upbeat rocker with another strong guitar riff and driving drum pattern which is probably one of Fleetwood's contributions. There is a somewhat tribal-esque drum instrumental section too which really feels like his playing, and that really makes this song feel like a lost Fleetwood Mac classic. McVie's somewhat gravelly voice helps to give his song a real bite, and the funky chorus is one of the album's catchiest moments with a dancey bassline and a spiky guitar riff. Lay Down for Free seems like another lost Fleetwood Mac classic and some of the backing vocals during the chorus really sound like something Nicks would have done if she had actually committed to recording with the band. The pop sheen of this number really recalls the band's classic Rumours sound with shimmering keyboards and understated guitar rhythms that drive the song with a slightly bouncy feel without ever really dominating the mix. Buckingham is still a great singer and this is one of his best performances vocally on the album with a good mix of whimsical emotion and power - something which always characterised his songwriting. In many ways, McVie's Game of Pretend is the song on this album which is closest to her signature style from the past. The piano-led ballad makes the most of her knack for mournful but surprisingly catchy melodies and packs a surprising emotional punch. While subtle percussion and acoustic guitars do join the mix as the song moves along, it is always her piano that is the dominant instrumental throughout. Buckingham's effects-heavy backing vocals during the chorus really helps to add some quirkiness, but overall this is a very traditional piano ballad which adds some variety during this fairly upbeat pop/rock album. On with the Show, which was the name of Fleetwood Mac's big reunion tour during 2014 and 2015 (which is more evidence that many of these songs were written to be Fleetwood Mac songs), returns to the pop/rock feel of the rest of the album with big acoustic guitar chords and a slightly funky bassline. While not particularly an upbeat number, the song contains many of those classic Buckingham hallmarks and probably contains his best vocal performance of the album. He has a way of conveying subtle emotions in his vocal performances effortlessly and this is made obvious here with a understated and enveloping vocal display. The album's last song is one of McVie's and Carnival Begin is a slightly bluesy number that moves along at quite a slow pace with very deliberate guitar picking and a murky bassline. The chorus picks up on the melody front however with chiming keyboard lines that mix in well with the guitars for a shiny feel that really sounds great. The bluesy feel is cemented with a soaring Buckingham guitar solo that really helps to close the album out on a high as the aching runs of notes continue during the song's fade out. Overall, Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie is an album that shows the two Fleetwood Mac members can still write strong material. While nothing here will ever be as good as their all-time classic songs from the past, there is still a lot to enjoy here and is a worthy addition to their respective canons.

The album was released on 9th June 2017 via East West Records. Below is the duo's promotional sound clip of In My World.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Anathema's 'The Optimist' - Album Review

While I had been a casual fan of Liverpool's dynamic rockers Anathema for some time, it has only been during the past couple of years that I really came to love them. I picked their ninth studio album, 2012's Weather Systems, on a bit of a whim after reading plenty of rave reviews of it online. I enjoyed it from the off, but it was not an album that I turned to often at first. It took some time for the band's unique mix of dense progressive rock and almost-poppy alternative rock, which is all intertwined with somewhat gothic atmospherics, to resonate with me fully, but once I was hooked it was hard to go back. I would say I became fully hooked sometime during 2015, probably following witnessing an excellent acoustic show from the band in Exeter's beautiful cathedral early that year. It is certainly one of the most memorable concerts I have ever been to, and the band's grand music - even in the sparser acoustic arrangements that were showcased that night - really fitted the grand setting. It was around this time that their tenth album, 2014's Distant Satellites, really began to click with me too. For some reason I did not get that album as soon as it was released so I never had the chance to review it properly (although I did say a few words about it here). I love the album now however and, while I have since gone back and purchased the vast majority of the band's discography, I still consider Weather Systems and Distant Satellites to be my favourite Anathema albums. I was not going to make the same mistake twice so I made sure I pre-ordered their latest album well before it's release and it became one of my most anticipated releases of the year. A frankly stunning show in Cardiff last November, which saw the band preview some of the material that ended up on this new album, definitely heightened my interest; so I was very excited when my copy of The Optimist finally arrived. Anathema are a band that have a career you can split into distinct sections, and I believe they are currently in their fourth main chapter which started with We're Here Because We're Here back in 2010. The band's current sound is typified by mournful piano lines, repeating melodies that often cause the song to build towards an emotional crescendo, and the increased vocal presence of Lee Douglas. The Optimist almost feels like the ultimate conclusion of the sound the band have been crafting over the past three albums and I feel like this might end up being one of the band's career-defining releases. Unlike the rest of the band's more recent work however, Anathema have dipped back into their past somewhat with The Optimist, which is conceptually a sequel to 2001's A Fine Day to Exit and continues the story of that album's protagonist. This leads to a few darker, more overtly 'rock' orientated numbers here which mix in well with the soaring melodies that characterise Anathema's current sound. The electronic sounds that were experimented with on a few numbers on Distant Satellites return here too and are greatly expanded upon with founding drummer-turned-all-round-musician John Douglas making the most of his arsenal of electronic percussion. Songwriting as always is dominated here by guitarist and pianist Danny Cavanagh, but a few choice contributions by John Douglas and frontman Vincent Cavanagh help to diversity the album's sounds. Production here was handled by Tony Doogan, in his first collaboration with the band, who's work with post-rock bands like Mogwai may have influenced the more experimental elements of The Optimist.

The album's opening piece, the short soundscape 32.63N 117.14W (the co-ordinates to the beach on the cover artwork of A Fine Day to Exit and the starting point for this album's story), follows the album's protagonist out of the sea and back into his car. The car's radio is heard before the man settles for some skittish electronic beats that lead nicely into the album's first proper song Leaving it Behind which opens with sub-Nine Inch Nails grooves before a a dark, chiming guitar melody kicks in and Vincent Cavanagh's trademark howling and raw vocals begin to croon over the top. Jamie Cavanagh's (twin to Vincent and younger brother to Danny) melodic bass playing acts to create subtle depth, before the song explodes into a frantic and dense rocker with punchy drumming and swirling guitar melodies. Drumming duties on the album are split between John Douglas and and Daniel Cardoso, with the former also contributing keyboards and various percussion. The song is centred around a strong chorus with Vincent Cavanagh's distinct vocal melodies which manages to sink in after only a few listens. In many ways, Leaving it Behind harks back somewhat to the band's earlier days, in particular 1998's Alternative 4, but the next song Endless Ways is very much in the modern Anathema mould and focuses on Lee Douglas' stunning vocals and Danny Cavanagh's sparse piano playing. While Vincent Cavanagh will always be the band's frontman, vocal duties are more or less split evenly between himself and Lee Douglas now, and this gives the former chance to expand his guitar and keyboard playing too. In classic Anathema fashion, the song starts out slowly with just vocals and the piano backing, but the gradually builds up adding layers of keyboards and choppy guitar rhythms while never losing the basic beauty of the initial melodies. Vincent and Danny Cavanagh have become quite a guitar duo over the years and have a way of being able to mix rhythms and chord progressions together to make for a deep but melodic sound. This approach is also used on the album's title track, but sees Vincent Cavanagh once again taking the lead with his fragile falsetto vocals resting upon a bed of chiming piano lines. Lee Douglas adds sweet harmonies throughout, but this song really allows Vincent Cavanagh to show his emotional side with a gorgeous vocal display. The song gets more overtly 'rock' as it moves along, and a strong guitar-led instrumental section towards the end showcases one of the only true moments of lead guitar prowess on the album with a hypnotic melody that really gets under the skin. The electronic elements of the opening couple of numbers return on the piano-heavy instrumental piece San Francisco. While the piece goes on for a minute or so too long, there is no denying the beauty of the piano playing and the retro synth sounds that are used throughout too for extra spacey melodies. It leads into Springfield, a piece which is largely instrumental and features only a couple of lines of lyrics repeated over and over by Lee Douglas while the song builds around her with guitars, piano, and synths all acting in unison for a huge enveloping sound that oozes with subtle power. This song really typifies Anathema's modern sound, and would be a great gateway song for potential new fans of the band. The guitar soundscapes that define the band's sound are very present here, and that is what makes the song so powerful.

After the emotional climax to Springfield, Ghosts definitely tones things down a little with Lee Douglas' ethereal vocals backed by a doomy piano melody and a more traditional string section. The heady orchestral arrangements help the emotional punch of the album to be retained however, and their simple but powerful melodies really make the song what it is. Unlike many of the band's other songs, this one never really builds up to a big climax, instead opting to stay simple with a relaxing drum rhythm and Lee Douglas' exemplary vocal performance. Can't Let Go is almost the antithesis of Ghosts with an upbeat rock feel, somewhat poppy melodies, and Vincent Cavanagh's vocals instead of Lee Douglas'. The chiming guitar lines and punchy drums help to inject some much-needed energy into an album which is often happy to move along at quite a slow pace. This is no bad thing, but the odd burst of higher-energy rock really helps to give the album a more dynamic feel and stops things from becoming too samey. While the main riffs and rhythms of the song remain throughout it's duration, there are subtle changes throughout which give the song a complete feel. Abrasive lead guitar lines arrive towards the second half of the song and this adds a little discordant feel that clashes nicely with the song's more upbeat vibe. Close Your Eyes is Lee Douglas territory once again, and the rumbling piano backing and cello lines really help to bring the best out of a vocal performance that takes on a rather smokey - almost bluesy - feel. This bluesy feel continues during an instrumental section later on in the song with a solitary trumpet melody that sits atop the sparse drumming and piano lines. The Miles Davis/Louie Armstrong feel with the horns is something new for the band, and it really helps to add a new dimension to this album and makes this little song stand out from some of the more 'traditional' numbers here. Wildfires sees Danny Cavanagh take the lead vocally in a rare outing in that context for him and his deeper voice works well with the heavy effects that are put on it. At first he mostly repeats the album's title over an electronic and piano-led backing but this soon morphs into a more heavy piece with crashing piano chords and distorted guitar notes that are probably the most abrasive heard on an Anathema album for sometime. While nowhere near as heavy as the band's death/doom roots, it is good to see that the band can still rock with the best of them when it is required and this is something that I would like to see the band expand on more in the future. The album's final piece, the lengthy Back to the Start, is definitely very representative of the band's current sound however although the sparse acoustic guitar intro creates something a little different initially before the familiar piano sounds and restrained drumming comes in to back Vincent Cavanagh's mournful, dark vocals. Songs like this really show why Anathema are one of the best modern progressive rock bands, and take things that bands like Marillion and Radiohead do and put their own stamp on them with their unique and instantly recognisable sound. The closing parts of the song, characterised by a soaring orchestral score and Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas howling the song's title with raw emotion, is a perfect ending to an album that is a true journey - both in a literal concept sense and a musical sense - and one that really manages to capture the imagination. I wondered after Distant Satellites were the band would go from there and whether or not their current sound could be expanded upon over another fresh-sounding album. Well, the answer to that is yes and The Optimist is a real gem and one that will more than likely be in my Albums of the Year list come December.

The album was released on 9th June 2017 via Kscope. Below is the band's promotional video for Springfield.