Sunday, 22 October 2017

Brother Firetribe - London Review

The Finnish AOR band Brother Firetribe have been a regular on my iPod since I first heard their second album Heart Full of Fire in either 2008 or 2009. At the time Nightwish were my favourite band, and I was excited to hear more from their guitarist Emppu Vuorinen. Brother Firetribe is very different from Nightwish however, and takes inspiration from all forms of 1980s melodic rock. Shades of Foreigner, Journey, and Survivor are found in Brother Firetribe's songs, and as a big fan of that type of music it was great to discover a modern band playing music as if it was still 1985. Nightwish's busy touring schedule has always restricted Brother Firetribe's live activities, but with 2017 being the band's fifteenth anniversary and the year in which their fourth album Sunbound was released it seemed fitting that a European tour should be scheduled to celebrate these facts. Most of the band's previous live shows have been in their native Finland and selected other mainland European locations. The UK has never been one of their main targets, and this visit to London's small Borderline venue was only their second ever concert here. They played the now-defunct Firefest in 2014, but this Borderline show was their first ever headline appearance in the UK. While not exactly being a hugely well-known band over here, I knew that the band's first headline appearance here would no doubt attract a decent amount of people. I got down to the Borderline not long before the doors opened and there was already a modest queue gathered. I had been to the Borderline once previously, and that was to see The Reasoning in 2011, but the venue seems to have undergone quite a refurbishment since and the place looked a lot smarter than I remembered. It was good that I got down relatively early, as it turned out this was a sold out show and over the course of the evening there were plenty of people crammed into the small venue. I had a good spot throughout the evening, and had good views and great sound throughout.

Opening the night were fellow Finns Shiraz Lane, who's sleazy, high-energy hair metal was just what was needed to get the night started. I had purchased the band's debut album For Crying out Loud on hearing that they were the supports for this tour, and was not disappointed by their 40 minutes on stage. Wake Up, the first song from the album, got things underway before three new songs, including new single Harder to Breathe, were showcased. Out of these new songs, the first number Carnival Days really stood out. The song has a killer chorus, and is sure to be one of the highlights of the band's next album. On stage, the band were full of energy. Frontman Hannes Kett deserves special mention for an excellent vocal performance that showcased lots of high-pitched screams that cut across the band's bluesy, sleazy riffs with ease. Elsewhere, guitarist Jani Laine impressed with lots of excellent solos; but in truth the whole band worked together as a unit to work the crowd. There seemed to be quite a few fans in attendance and Shiraz Lane received a loud reception throughout their entire set. Songs from their debut album were played towards the end, including an excellent version of the single Mental Slavery, before an older number, Out There Somewhere, was played to bring their portion of the night to a close. I was impressed by the band, and I look forward to getting the chance to see them again sometime soon. The setlist was:

Wake Up
Carnival Days
Harder to Breathe
People Like Us
Begging for Mercy
For Crying out Loud
Mental Slavery
Out There Somewhere

After a fairly quick changeover, Brother Firetribe came on stage to a synthy backdrop and launched into the short instrumental title track from their new album. As on the album, this segued into Help is on the Way and this introduced frontman Pekka Ansio Heino to the stage. He is a very dynamic and interactive frontman, often taking the time to clap hands with those in the front couple of rows, and overall just rallying the five-piece band though their high-energy set. As this is the tour promoting the Sunbound album, the songs from that album dominated the set, but all four of the band's albums were represented throughout which helped to create a balanced, career-spanning experience. What was clear from the off was just how up for this night the crowd was, and every song was sung back at the band with real force, which seemed to even catch the band off guard at times. I do not think they had quite expected the reception they would receive over here! The single Indelible Heroes followed, before they went back to their debut album for the keyboard-heavy One Single Breath. Despite sometimes being buried in the mix at rock shows Tomi Nikulainen's keyboards were high in the mix throughout. He really drove the band forward with his retro-style playing, with many of the songs being based around his riffs and leads. Vuorinen mostly sticks to crunchy rhythm patterns, but most songs contain a solo which allow him chances to show off. He has never been the flashiest of guitarist, with either this band or with Nightwish, but his infectious smile and tough rhythms make him an invaluable part of both and he really anchored the band along with Jason Flinck (bass guitar/vocals). An early highlight for me was For Better or for Worse, the lead single from 2014's Diamond in the Firepit, before the slightly dancey Shock provided a change of mood and pace. Runaways, from Heart Full of Fire, contains one of the band's best choruses so it was unsurprisingly very well received. There were parts during the song where the crowd could be heard above the band, which should give a clue on the atmosphere inside the Borderline at this point. Another real highlight of the night was Taste of a Champion from the new album which really is this decade's Eye of the Tiger. It is probably my favourite song that the band have ever done, and live it took on another edge. Heino is a great live singer, ably backed up throughout by Flinck, and his passion in the song's delivery really made it the song of the night. The set ended with another two anthems, with the Survivor-esque Give me Tonight and the pseudo power metal of Heart Full of Fire bringing the main set to a triumphant close. There were calls for more, and there time for one final number. I am Rock was the song chosen, and the tough guitar riffing and minimal keyboards make it one of the heaviest Brother Firetribe songs. It still has a strong chorus though, and Heino often encouraged the crowd to sing, who of course obliged. Despite plentiful calls for more from the crowd, this was the end as the venue had to get ready to become a nightclub in a short space of time. The setlist was:

Sunbound
Help is on the Way
Indelible Heroes
One Single Breath
Heart of the Matter
For Better or for Worse
Shock
Runaways
Last Forever
Taste of a Champion
I'm on Fire
Give me Tonight
Heart Full of Fire
-
I am Rock

This was stunning debut headline show in the UK, and I hope that Brother Firetribe do not leave it another 15 years before coming again. It was a fairly short set, at around an hour and a quarter in total, and if I had any criticisms to make it would be that they could have easily fitted in a couple more songs - especially as there was a 50 minute gap between the doors opening and Shiraz Lane taking the stage. This seems a minor complaint however, as both bands really put on excellent shows that show there is plenty of excellent current melodic rock out there for those who are into that sort of thing.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Marilyn Manson's 'Heaven Upside Down' - Album Review

After just over a two-year wait, the self-styled 'God of Fuck' is back with his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down. After what is often perceived as a decade-long slump in his creativity and studio output, Marilyn Manson returned to form in a big way with 2015's The Pale Emperor (which I reviewed here). Prior to The Pale Emperor's release Manson's last great album, in my opinion, was 2003's anthemic The Golden Age of Grotesque, an album which in many ways heralded the end of Manson's true heyday. It was the last album with longtime band members John 5 and Madonna Wayne Gacy, and was the last album to really showcase the industrial metal crossed with arena rock sound that he had been building on ever since his 1996's classic sophomore album Antichrist Superstar. That is not to say that Manson released nothing of note during the late 2000s and early 2010s. 2007's Eat Me, Drink Me, 2009's The High End of Low, and 2012's Born Villain all contained memorable songs, but none of those albums felt like complete pieces of work. Manson's previous work had always featured a strong aesthetic vision which gave each album it's own musician and visual identity. The three albums highlighted above certainly lacked this cohesion and suffered as a result. It was great to this changed on The Pale Emperor however, the first Manson album since The Golden Age of Grotesque to really feel like a complete piece of work. Manson chose to work with multi-instrumentalist Tyler Bates, who was more well-known for his work on many TV and film soundtracks, and the two immediately seemed to strike up a winning writing partnership. While it was sad to see Manson's longtime collaborator Twiggy relegated to largely just a touring musician as a result, Bates gave the spark back to Manson's music. Bates always brought about a slight change of direction, and injected a heavy dose of the blues into Manson's sound. As a result, The Pale Emperor sounded quite different to anything Manson had put out previously but still sounded right for the shock rocker. The album has a bass-heavy sedate strut throughout it, which works perfectly for Manson to croon over the top of, and was easily his best-received album for a while. This success, and to a lesser extent sound, has been built on on Heaven Upside Down. Bates again returned to co-write the album and play all of the instruments, with the exception of the drums which are again handled by Gil Sharone (Stolen Babies; The Dillinger Escape Plan). The blues influences introduced on The Pale Emperor return here, but are mixed in with a heavier industrial rock sound that recalls Manson's classic era. The anger is certainly back here, with plenty of heavier material in comparison to the previous album, but the bluesy strut worked on previously is retained to provide some class and groove.

Opening with distorted clippings from news reports, the album's first song Revolution #12 soon opens out with a dry guitar riff and Manson's trademark part-spoken vocal style. His voice has often been accused of deteriorating over recent years, and it is true that he can often have off-days live, he sounds excellent here with a confident display as he spouts the causing lyrics. The song is mix of bass-heavy verses and heavier choruses, which make great use of some stark guitar riffs, which is all underpinned by Sharone's somewhat tribal drumming style. While the song's main refrain, which is made up of Manson counting rather menacingly, sounds a little trite on first listen, this is something which gains more power the more that you hear it and makes for a strong opening impression. Tattooed in Reverse feels like a bit of a leftover from The Pale Emperor sessions as it is built around a bluesy bass groove with plenty of chiming guitar melodies throughout. This sound is mixed in well with some more traditional industrial tricks however, with fuzzy synths and white noise thrown in to give the song a creepy edge. The song's organic feel definitely helps it to stand out here, and creates a big contrast with the following number. WE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE, which is that following number, is probably Manson's heaviest piece in a while and is based around an angry chorus, packed full of punky guitars and electronic-sounding drums, that really hits home. Fans of 1998's Mechanical Animals in particular will particularly enjoy this one, as it resembles the sound that Manson forged on that album pretty closely. The verses are fairly slow, and all build up towards the chorus with mechanised drumming and cold synths. Manson even unleashes some of his blood-curdling screams for the chorus, something which he does less and less these days, to great effect. SAY10, which was originally going to be the album's title track, follows and is much less heavy but is filled with plenty of creepy effects to create a strong atmosphere. The verses are mostly whispered, with swirling atmospherics and distant piano notes to back up the sparse vocals. It does get heavier during the choruses, but this is nothing compared to the previous song. Instead the guitar plays a very classic rock-inspired riff while Manson barks a repetitive but catchy refrain. Sharone's slower, hollow drums really help to add groove to this chorus and it becomes one of the album's most memorable moments. KILL4ME sees the blues element return to the album's sound, with some surprisingly great guitar leads in the song's intro, but mixes it with poppy melodies that are most reminicient to the sound pursued on Eat Me, Drink Me. The bluesy verses mix well with this these more upbeat choruses, which are packed full of 1980s-style synths, to create a strange but somewhat addicting sound. This is a song you could genuinely dance to, and in the 1980s would have had a dance mix released on 12 inch vinyl.

Saturnalia is the album's longest song, at just shy of eight minutes in length, and it sounds like a culmination of everything Manson and Bates were working towards on The Pale Emperor. This is a fairly sparse song, despite it's length, and features lots of excellent bass playing from Bates. There are heavier moments, like a guitar-driven chorus with some surprisingly melodic vocals from Manson, but most of the song is led by this bass performance with swirling synths to provide a cold backing. That being said, the more upbeat sections of the song are surprisingly catchy. Manson has always been the master of creating tricky vocal melodies that sit atop music which would not usually be considered melodic and making them work. This song is a great example of that, and also one that showcases his modern sound perfectly. JE$U$ CRI$I$ is another bass-heavy song, but features some odd lyrics which, even for Manson, sound a little crass. He's also written challenging, and often controversial, lyrics but the main hook here just seems to be trying to be offensive for it's own sake. In fairness the song is still really catchy, with some great wordless vocal sections, but I just feel that this is the song that those who have always found Manson abhorrent will point to and say 'I told you so'. Manson has rarely felt contrived, but this is one occasion where it does feel that way. That being said, the slow, doomy section of the song is great with a strong guitar riff that really sticks out. Blood Honey gets things back on track with a doomy feel with slow guitar riffs and a hollow drum pattern. The best part about this song however is great keyboard work throughout. Bates has utilised a lot of classic synths here, many of which would not sound out of place on a 1970s progressive rock epic, which gives the song a great retro feel. The somewhat cheesy synths clash perfectly with the heavier parts of the song to create a creepy atmosphere and a perfect backing for Manson's tortured vocal performance. There is even something of a guitar solo towards the end, which sees Bates attacking his guitar with fury to produce an eerie sound. The album's title track is next, and is a fairly straight ahead rocker with plenty of prominent basslines and a strong chorus. Manson has always been inspired by classic rock throughout his career, and this song showcases that perfectly with a less-dense overall sound and a more conventional structure. Bates actually gets a true chance to solo here, with a bluesy guitar solo towards the end of the song which sounds a little out of place on a Marilyn Manson album but fits in with the style of the song well. The album comes to a close with Threats of Romance, a fairly gentle (by Manson's standards) song that actually reminds me a little of Queen in places. Famed session musician Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. plays the keyboards throughout and this gives the song a piano-driven sound which adds to the theatrical feel of the piece. Glam rock has always been another of Manson's big influences and I feel that this shines through here with the song's relatively upbeat sound. It's a good choice to end the album with, as it feels like a bit of a wind-down after a few harder-hitting pieces, and it is another instantly memorable piece. Overall, Heaven Upside Down is another really strong album from Manson that builds on the success of The Pale Emperor by expanding on that successful sound by looking at his past and key influences. Manson seems to be entering into a second golden age of late, and I hope he can keep this up going forward.

The album was released on 6th October 2017 via Loma Vista Recordings/Caroline International. Below is Manson's promotional video for WE KNOW WHERE YOU FUCKING LIVE.


Sunday, 15 October 2017

Marillion - London Review

For the past ten or so years, Marillion have been one of my very favourite bands. While initially I only knew the band's very early work with their original lead singer Fish, as these are the CDs that my Dad already owned, seeing the band at the Cambridge Rock Festival in 2008 really opened my eyes to the rest of the band's diverse and expansive discography. They are now one of the few bands of which I enjoy every album (to an extent at least) that they have put out, and they are a regular feature on my stereo. I had seen the band live a few times over the years, and always enjoyed their live shows, so when the band announced a special show at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London I knew that I had to get tickets. In fact, the tickets went on sale the day after the band's show in London in December last year, so I purchased my ticket for the Albert Hall show in the car on the way home. It was just as well that I did, as the show sold out almost instantly, and it became something that I spent the whole of 2017 looking forward to. It is not too often that a rock band plays the Albert Hall, so it was a new venue for me. Part of the excitement of the trip was just visiting this hallowed musical ground, and the venue did not disappoint. Despite part of the building being clad in scaffolding due to maintenance works, the iconic Grade I listed building looked fantastic, and was even better when I got into the venue and found my seat. I went to the concert with my Dad, and when we found out just how close we were going to be to the stage we were shocked. We initially had tickets for the standing gallery, which is about as far away from the stage as possible, but for some reason our tickets were upgraded to the stalls. We were only a few meters from the stage, right next to guitarist Steve Rothery's little base, with a perfect view across the stage. It really was the perfect place to be situated, and it was fantastic that the venue chose us to get these fantastic seats. Lots of other guests of the band were sat in and around us too, with former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett perched just behind us modern prog legend Steven Wilson a few rows behind us too. With Marillion scheduled to take the stage at 7:30pm with an 11pm curfew, this promised to be a long evening.

The band took to the stage bang on time, and a huge roar from the crowd greeted Marillion as they sidled onto the relatively small stage. The acoustic opening of El Dorado started things off nicely, and it was clear that they were going to start the evening with the whole of their excellent latest album  Fuck Everyone and Run. The album was one of my favourite releases of last year, so getting to hear it full live was a real treat. The band had played a fair chunk of the album at the O2 Forum last December, but hearing it all in sequence with excellent video projections really helped to bring the album to life. While the band initially seemed overwhelmed by the audience reactions and the grandness of the venue, they soon overcame this and proceeded to play through the album with extra vigour, and by the time El Dorado came to a close, they received the first of many standing ovations of the night. While everyone on stage really gave it their all, it was frontman Steve Hogarth that was the real standout performer. He seemed even more animated than usual on stage and really gave the vocal performance of a lifetime in these hallowed halls. Even when he was sat behind a keyboard, as in Living in F E A R which followed El Dorado, he managed to capture all the attention. It was great to hear the lengthy The Leavers live for the first time after this. It has always been my least favourite of the three epics on Fuck Everyone and Run, but hearing it live it really came into it's own. The excellent video projections really fit with the themes of the song, and the crowd seemed extra engaged here. About half way through the song, Rothery launched into one of his trademark guitar solos and it was at this point that I realised just how great the live sound in this venue is. Even as close to the stage as we were, everything sounded crystal clear and Rothery's guitar solo just cut through the mix perfectly to fill the venue. The ending of The Leavers is one that encourages crowd participation, and unsurprisingly everyone was on their feet for the One Tonight section and sung lyrics back at the band. White Paper, which is a real favourite of mine from the latest album, was another real treat. The melancholy tune came across fantastically live, with both Hogarth and Mark Kelly behind their keyboards for a dense and enveloping sound. The first set really came together towards the end however, with a barnstorming rendition of The New Kings - which is easily my favourite piece from the new album. I particularly love Hogarth's lyrics in this song, and hearing him spit them out in his smooth voice in this grand venue really made the song hit home even more than previously. After The New Kings finished, the band left the stage to take a small break as Tomorrow's New Country was played over the venue's PA and the crowd were left to digest what they had just heard.

This break also gave the band's crew chance to set up for what was coming next, as the second half of the show featured the band playing with a string quartet, a flautist, and French horn player. After about half an hour, the classical musicians took to the stage and immediately hit into the opening notes of The Space.... As they did, the place erupted and the band filed back into the stage for what seemed like one long, triumphant encore. The Space... is a magical song anyway, but hearing it with live strings just elevated it above it's already-grand status. What followed was a second set filled with some of the band's best-loved material, all augmented with live strings, to great effect. Both Afraid of Sunlight and The Great Escape felt more powerful for the extra musicians, and the emotional impact of the latter really hit home with Hogarth's stunning vocal performance. Easter was another highlight of the evening. The song contains one of Rothery's best guitar solos in my opinion, and seeing him play it from only a few feet away was a very special moment. It received one of the biggest cheers of the night, and that is saying something considering nearly every song received a standing ovation! The rarely-played Go! was up next, and this featured one of the most memorable moments of the night as nearly everyone in attendance raised little LED lights up in the air during the song's climax. The effect this had was fantastic and, as the stage light dimmed, the whole place was lit up by these little LEDs. This was done in an attempt to recreate something that spontaneously happened at one of the band's conventions earlier in the year, and it works fantastically and proved to be an emotional moment. The main set then came to an end with Man of a Thousand Faces, which starts as an upbeat rocker with Kelly's piano driving everything, before descending into an atmospheric wig out with Hogarth's effects-heavy vocals the swirling strings from the classical musicians. It was a triumphant finish, but there was of course more to come. The classical musicians joined the band again for the encore, and the oldie Waiting to Happen got given a rare live outing. I have been a fan of the song for a long time, and thing that Holidays in Eden is one of the band's most underrated albums, so hearing it live was a real treat. The aching chorus, with Kelly's keyboards and the dense strings, really filled the venue and I could see more than a few tears in eyes around me. The band's 'traditional' set-closer Neverland followed. This song is pretty much ever-present in the band's live shows, but this version was the most powerful version of it that I have ever heard, and one of the most powerful pieces of live music ever. The string section added so much, and the thick fog that swirled around the stage really added to the atmosphere. Rothery turned the entire ending section of the song into one of the best guitar solos I have heard in quite some time, all while the rest of the band created the rest of the song's magic. It rightly received another standing ovation, and it was hard not to be overcome by the majesty of what was going on on stage. After a brief step off stage, the band came back one final time for a reprise of the One Tonight section of The Leavers, this time with the classical musicians in tow. Everyone was on their feet by this time, and the 'We come together' section of the song resonated around the venue long after the band had stopped playing. The band took their bows and left the stage for the final time, probably failing to take in exactly what they had just achieved. The setlist was:

El Dorado - Part I: Long-Shadowed Sun
El Dorado - Part II: The Gold
El Dorado - Part III: Demolished Lives
El Dorado - Part IV: F E A R
El Dorado - Part V: The Grandchildren of Apes
Living in F E A R
The Leavers - Part I: Wake Up in Music
The Leavers - Part II: The Remainers
The Leavers - Part III: Vapour Trails in the Sky
The Leavers - Part IV: The Jumble of Days
The Leavers - Part V: One Tonight
White Paper
The New Kings - Part I: Fuck Everyone and Run
The New Kings - Part II: Russia's Locked Doors
The New Kings - Part III: A Scary Sky
The New Kings - Part IV: Why is Nothing Ever True?
Tomorrow's New Country
-
The Space...
Afraid of Sunlight
The Great Escape
Easter
Go!
Man of a Thousand Faces

-
Waiting to Happen
Neverland
-
The Leavers - Part V: One Tonight

In a world where everything is 'the best ever', '5 stars', '10/10' etc. to the point rendering those descriptions meaningless, I can honestly say that this show is up there with the very best things I have witnessed. It was up there with Bruce Springsteen at Wembley, up there with Guns N' Roses at Nottingham Arena and the London Stadium, and up there with Twisted Sister at Bloodstock. Hearing the whole of Fuck Everyone and Run live was truly special, as was the second set with the classical musicians. A truly wonderful experience that will no doubt be a watermark in the band's career, and will make a fabulous concert film when the filmed show is released next year.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

DragonForce - Cardiff Review

While power metal is not exactly something the UK is known for, one of the biggest modern exponents of the genre, DragonForce, have made the country their home. Despite being a multi-national band, DragonForce have settled in London, and are considered a homegrown band by many UK fans. Despite at one point truly threatening to break into the big leagues, the last few years have seen the band treading a more modest, but still very successful, path. More diversity in the songwriting, particularly on the past couple of studio albums, has widened the band's potential fanbase and DragonForce are now less likely to be seen as the one-trick pony 'joke' band that they were sometimes seen as previously. I first saw the band live back in 2009 at the Hall for Cornwall in Truro while the band were promoting the Ultra Beatdown album. I have seen the band three more times, with the most recent being a rather truncated set at last year's Bloodstock Open Air. Initially, due to other gigging commitments, I thought that I would not be able to make any of the shows on the band's latest UK headline run, supporting seventh studio album Reaching Into Infinity, but some more careful though and planning made the Cardiff date doable. Cardiff is always a great place for a gig, and The Globe venue on the edge of the city centre is a great small club. I had previously seen Anathema take the place by storm last November, and I fully expected DragonForce to do the same. The show was sold out long before the day of the show rolled around and, as expected, the place was packed with metalheads all night.

Opening up the show were Power Quest, who were on the eve of releasing their latest album Sixth Dimension after regrouping last year. Despite only having a relatively short time on stage, they made the time count with a winning performance that mainly showcased the band's older songs, with one new one thrown in for good measure. Steve Williams (keyboards/vocals), himself an early member of DragonForce, is the band's only constant member, but he led his largely new band through their paces with ease from behind his stack of keyboards. The two standout performers however were Glyndwr Williams (guitar/vocals), who handled the vast majority of the band's solos, and frontman Ashley Edison who's smooth and high pitched vocals really helped bring the band to life. All of the songs were soaring and melodic slabs of metal, and I thoroughly enjoyed their set. I am very much looking forward to exploring Sixth Dimension fully now that it is out. The setlist was:

Ascension
Wings of Forever
Temple of Fire
Kings and Glory
For Evermore
Magic Never Dies
Far Away

It was not long after Power Quest's gear was cleared from the stage that the house lights went down and DragonForce took to the stage with Ashes of the Dawn from their latest album. As with their other more recent material, many of the song on Reaching into Infinity are less based around speed than their more classic output, but Ashes of the Dawn ensured thing began on a high. Guitarists Herman Li and Sam Totman immediately showed their chops with a great harmony guitar intro as frontman Marc Hudson took to the stage for the first of many flawless vocal performances. He is improving in his role as the band's frontman each time I see him, and this was easily the best I have seen him live. Older material was interspersed throughout the set, and Operation Ground and Pound was brought out of the vaults and predictably went down a storm with the crowd. The band, who are currently touring as a five piece without keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov, definitely sounded rawer and heavier than usual. While Pruzhanov's keyboards were replaced with a backing track, this was quite low in the mix and allowed the guitars, as well as Frédéric Leclercq's bass, to really shine through. Judgement Day and Seasons followed, both of which really held the crowd captive, but it was the oldie Fury of the Storm at the around the halfway point of the set that really saw the biggest reaction from the crowd up until that point. That song has an extended instrumental section partway through, and saw both Li and Totman really shredding their hearts out with some of the best solos of the night. Another instrumental section followed, with Leclercq taking up a guitar to shred away but he was soon joined by Hudson on the bass and drummer Gee Anzalone to run through some old video game soundtracks. Anzalone also had a quick drum solo, so everyone on the stage really had a good chance to show off. There were three songs left in the main set after this little interlude, and the golden oldie Heart of a Dragon saw a rare outing, before the ten minute plus epic from the new album The Edge of the World wowed the crowd. While the initial cheer for the song was very muted, by the end I think everyone was on board. It is easily the band's most progressive piece, with lots of different sections that are knitted together perfectly, including a black metal-inspired section with harsh vocals. The main set came to an end with the newer classic Cry Thunder, which saw some crowd participation throughout, and the band left the stage to big cheers. There was time for a couple more however, and two bona fide DragonForce classics in the shapes of Valley of the Damned and their signature opus Through the Fire and Flames rounded out the evening in style. The setlist was:

Reaching into Infinity
Ashes of the Dawn
Operation Ground and Pound
Judgement Day
Seasons
Curse of Darkness
Fury of the Storm
Guitar/Drum solos
Heart of a Dragon
The Edge of the World
Cry Thunder
-
Valley of the Damned
Through the Fire and Flames

Overall this was another excellent display of modern power metal from one of the best the genre has to offer. It is always great seeing bands like this be able to sell out venues across the UK, and shows that the UK metal scene is alive and well.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Black Country Communion's 'BCCIV' - Album Review

While the term supergroup if often thrown around in relation to a lot of bands, there are few bands that quite deserve that mantle as much as Black Country Communion do. Formed in 2009, with the help of producer Kevin Shirley, the Black Country Communion flame burned bright with three studio albums being released in as many years interspersed with a fair amount of touring. Formed by vocalist and bassist Glenn Hughes (Trapeze; Deep Purple; Black Sabbath; California Breed) and blues prodigy guitarist Joe Bonamassa, the duo's aim was to recreate the heyday of great the British classic rock band. Keyboardist Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater; Planet X; Sons of Apollo) and drummer Jason Bonham (Airrace; Virginia Wolf; UFO; Foreigner; Led Zeppelin; California Breed) were brought on board, and the band's self-titled album was released in 2010 to excellent world-wide reviews. The sound was pure classic rock, mixing bluesy rock riffs, walls of Hammond organ, and the ageless screaming vocals of Hughes to form a perfect sound that could have been released in the mid 1970s. Due to the instant success of the first album, the band rushed back into the studio to record the follow-up. Black Country Communion 2 was released the following year, again to great reviews. Despite a few shows to promote the first album, it was after the release of Black Country Communion 2 that the band really took to the road for the first time. The decent-length tour was also well-received, and the band were the current darlings of rock magazines and websites the world over. The following year, the band's third album Afterglow was released. By this point however, cracks were beginning to show in the band. It was clear that Hughes wanted Black Country Communion to be everyone's main focus, but Bonamassa was struggling to balance the needs of the band with the needs of his hugely successful solo career. Things came to a head not too long after the album's release, and Black Country Communion were over. Hughes and Bonham formed the short-lived band California Breed, and Sherinian joined Bonamassa's solo band for a time, but it seemed that Black Country Communion were over for good. Hughes and Bonamassa's fairly public spat was evidence enough of this, and it also seemed that the pressure that Shirley was putting on the band to keep putting out albums at a yearly rate just burnt everybody out. That is why it was a surprise last year when Hughes and Bonamassa announced that they were putting the band back together and were at work writing the band's fourth album. That album, titled BCCIV, was finally released last month and it is clear that none of the spark that was found during the band's original run has been lost during the hiatus. In my opinion, the break has actually helped the band's creativity, and the material on BCCIV is probably my favourite from the band since their debut. The songs here are some of the catchiest and varied the band have done to date, but everything is presented in that fabulously retro hard rock sound, all wrapped up by Shirley's raw production.

While many of the album's compositions are fairly lengthy, BCCIV gets underway with two punchier numbers. Lead single Collide opens things up with a strong bluesy guitar riff from Bonamassa that drives the whole song, just resting for enough time to allow Hughes to croon the verse lyrics with Sherinian's keyboard backing. Structurally the song is quite similar to Led Zeppelin's Black Dog, with a repeating riff on which the song is hung, and strong bluesy overtones. While Black Country Communion is a true band, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hughes and Bonamassa dominate the sound. Bonamassa has plenty of opportunities to solo throughout this album, and that includes a somewhat psychedelic bluesy one here. While a faster solo might have been expected, the slower one here works well and is a great contrast to the song's simple riff. Over My Head is built around a staccato riff, with Hughes' bass guitar and Bonamassa's guitar playing in perfect unison, and is packed full of Hughes' soul and funk influences. The chorus in particular exemplifies this, with some fairly airy high vocals from Hughes and some spacey guitar chords. Fans of Mk. III/IV Deep Purple will certainly enjoy this one and sees Hughes pair things back a little to good effect. In contrast The Last Song for my Resting Place is an epic piece with folky overtones that mixes gentle, ballad-esque sections with heavier rock explosions. It is the only song on the album sung by Bonamassa and opens with acoustic guitars, pianos, and even fiddles (courtesy of Gerry O'Connor) which marry together perfectly. Bonamassa's vocal style is much more reserved than Hughes', but it works well for this song. His delicate bluesy overtones really fits in with the music here and gives the song a different feel to the rest of the material on the album. It is not all gentle and acoustic-based however, as heavier moments appear throughout. This is especially true during Bonamassa's lengthy solo section part-way through which has a driving keyboard backing and a fat bassline to back it up. After the gentler overall mood of the previous song, Sway comes in with the intention to rock! A frantic riff drives the song, but atmosphere is provides throughout by an excellent keyboard display from Sherinian. I have always felt his skills have been underused in Black Country Communion for the most part, so it is great to hear him in such a prominent role here. His organ playing really cuts through the mix and provides an almost-orchestral feel at times, which works well with the punchy hard rock sound the rest of the band are working towards. As with the majority of the band's songs, there is an excellent solo from Bonamassa part-way through. This one makes great use of screaming string bends, which really adds to the raw rock feeling of the piece. The Cove is another change of pace, and makes use of a murky, atmospheric blues tone throughout. Musically the song bares similarity to artists like Tom Waits, but Hughes' distinctive voice helps to add that classic rock swagger. Bonamassa's guitar playing is often fairly discordant throughout, which helps to create an unsettling vibe, and Sherinian's mix of simple piano notes and darker organ sounds adds to the murkiness. While this song does not represent the band's usual sound, it remains a strong number on the album and provides a change of pace around the album's halfway mark.

The Crow returns back to the band's more traditional sound with a huge bass opening and a palpable energy caused by Bonham's drumming. Hughes' vocal performances throughout the album are always expressive, but during this song in particular he really lets go with some wails that a man half his age would struggle to achieve so cleanly. A song like this has more in common with Led Zeppelin that Deep Purple, and shows the scope of sound the band are able to cover. There are even sections which are dominated by Sherinian's ringing piano chords which seem like subtle nods to Queen despite the rawer rock overtones. A fantastic instrumental section sits in the middle of the song, and opens with a fairly lengthy bass solo from Hughes, before moving through a Hammond organ solo from Sherinian. Unsurprisingly it ends with an explosive solo from Bonamassa, showing how talented all of the members of the band are. This is a song that sees Black Country Communion firing on all cylinders and is a perfect representation of what they are about. Wanderlust is the album's longest song at over eight minutes in length, and it opens out in a more relaxed manner with a laid-back piano led section that has more in common with bands like the Eagles than the band's usual influences. The length of the song allows some progressive influences to creep in, and it is perhaps telling that Sherinian's keyboard playing is very prominent throughout, often sitting behind his piano to dictate proceedings. Not to be outdone, Bonamassa makes his presence throughout heard with plenty of bluesy breaks of lead in between lines of vocals, and a laid-back but excellent solo part-way through. From his performance throughout this album, it is easy to see why he is often considered one of the best guitarists on the world at the moment. The next couple of numbers reign in the lengthy and return to the simpler structures of the opening couple of songs. That is not to say that Love Remains is a back-to-basics rocker however, as it has more of the soulful influences that Hughes has tapped into throughout his career with a smooth vocal performance and a strong keyboard presence. Hughes has made a big effort to return to his real rock roots since the turn of the decade, and his soulful influences have largely taken a back seat, so it is great to see a couple of numbers here that really make use of that sound. Bonamassa is up to the task for these kinds of songs too, and shines here with a really slow and slightly twisted guitar solo which is quite different from his usual bluesy style. Awake showcases Bonamassa's bluesy influences, with an upbeat shuffle sound that allows him plenty of room to improvise around his riff. The song's playful nature helps it to stand out from the rest of the album and gives the back end of the album an energetic lift. Perhaps the highlight of the song however is a great instrumental section which sees both Sherinian and Bonamassa playing off each other with fast keyboard and guitar runs that almost meld into one at times. The album comes to a close with another lengthy song When the Morning Comes. Like The Last Song for my Resting Place, the song opens up acoustically, but really builds up to an epic rock arrangement drenched in Hammond organ and another really expressive vocal performance from Hughes. There are plenty of instrumental moments here, and this gives Bonamassa a last chance to really spread his wings with some more excellent soloing. This is another song however which shows everyone at the top of their game, and perfectly showcases the band's somewhat proggier side. It is a great end to the album, and feels like a modern classic rock epic. Overall, BCCIV is a really great comeback from one of the best rock supergroups around. It contains some of their best material yet, and has firmly put the band back in the mind of rock fans the world over.

The album was released on 22nd September 2017 via Mascot Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Collide.


Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Arch Enemy's 'Will to Power' - Album Review

Since effectively being relaunched back in 2014 with the release of War Eternal (which I reviewed here), the Swedish melodic death metal legends Arch Enemy have been working around the clock to promote the album and to play in as many countries as possible. The touring cycle the band undertook for War Eternal is almost certainly the longest in the band's history, and it really helped to re-establish the band's place in the upper echelons of the metal world after a couple of weaker releases. The inclusion of frontwoman Alissa White-Gluz and guitarist Nick Cordle seemed to really rejuvenate the band's founder and main songwriter Michael Amott, and the result was probably the band's best work since 2005's Doomsday Machine. Sadly however, this line-up did not last very long, as Cordle left the band mid-tour a few months after the album's release. Jeff Loomis (Sanctuary; Nevermore; Conquering Dystopia) was announced as the band's new guitarist shortly afterwards, and the band carried on playing live around the world and completed the lengthy War Eternal touring cycle earlier this year. Despite their busy road lives, Arch Enemy still found time to record a new album, which was finally released last month as Will to Power. Will to Power is the band's tenth studio album, and second to feature the dynamic vocal presence of White-Gluz. Sound wise, this album is mostly full of the type of material that fans will have come to expect from Arch Enemy, although there are a few differences throughout to help keep things interesting. Mostly however, this is an album of solid melodic death metal anthems in the Gothenburg style, with plenty of hard-hitting riffs, twin-guitar leads, and fist-raising choruses. The band's two remaining founding members, Ammot and drummer Daniel Erlandsson, have written the vast majority of the band's music on this album together, with White-Gluz and Amott writing around half of the album's lyrics each. While Amott and Erlandsson have always been heavily involved in the band's songwriting, I have to say that I was disappointed to see that Loomis was not involved in the creative process of this album at all. Reading interviews with both Amott and Loomis, it seems that this decision was made by the former to the (well-hidden) disappointment of the latter. I was looking forward to hear an Arch Enemy song co-written by Loomis, as his progressive songwriting style could have really given the band's music a new dimension, but it seemed that Amott wanted to keep the creative process close to his chest this time around. Loomis' role on Will to Power is limited to some of the album's guitar solos, so his presence is not really felt at all here. Amott's brother Christopher, another of the band's founding members, is credited with co-writing a couple of the songs here, and even contributes some guitar and keyboard work to one of them. Elsewhere, Jens Johansson (Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force; Dio; Stratovarius; Cain's Offering; Rainbow) provides some subtle keyboard textures on a few other songs which help to add depth when required.

After the instrumental opening Set Flame to the Night, which focuses on moody guitar leads instead of the traditional orchestrations, the album proper gets underway with The Race, a furious slab of melodic death metal that takes no prisoners. Without a real opening riff or distinct melody, the song is a pure aural assault that makes use of White-Gluz's throat-shredding vocals and some relentless drumming from Erlandsson. This is a song that never really pauses for breath, despite slowing down a little during a groovier section about two-thirds of the way through, and certainly takes greater influence from extreme metal than usual with no defined song structure. While Arch Enemy albums have started with more memorable songs, there are few album opens by fairly big 'mainstream' acts that will hit with this much venom right from the start. Blood in the Water follows and this follows the band's trademark more closely with a strident opening riff that is instantly memorable and a real classic rock strut in the verses with a simple drum pattern and White-Gluz's almost-spoken vocals. The chorus, despite it's short length, is a very catchy moment, with an ascending guitar pattern that is accompanied by some strong vocals. This then explodes into a guitar solo that is packed with melody and technical prowess. The World is Yours was the first song to be released from the album, and definitely has all the hallmarks of an Arch Enemy 'single'. The song's main riff is a fast one, backed up by some fast double bass drumming, and the chorus makes greater use of twin lead guitar melodies with Amott's rousing lyrics perfectly delivered by White-Gluz. There are plenty of chances throughout for both Amott and Loomis to shred, but sadly the album's booklet does not detail who performs each of solos. The soloing is always solid on an Arch Enemy album whoever is partnering Amott, and that is no different here with Loomis' additions. There is a quieter moment towards the end however, with Johansson's sparse piano melodies accompanied by White-Gluz's whispered vocals. This is something a bit different for the band, and just helps to add an extra dimension to the song. The Eagle Flies Alone is the other song that was released to the public before the album's release, and it has a feel of the style of songwriting that dominated 2011's Khaos Legions. The song is not as heavy or as fast as much else of what is found here, but that is not to say that it is not a good song. The riffs are packed with a groove that is rarely found in the band's music, and the mid-paced nature helps to amplify this. The chorus is another rousing one in Amott's trademark lyrical style, but it could have hit a little harder by speeding up a light to differentiate it from the rest of the song. The sixth song here, Reason to Believe, makes the biggest deviation from the band's traditional sound. In White-Gluz's previous band The Agonist, she made use of her strong clean voice as well her growls, but this was not the case on War Eternal. This song however is largely sung clean which, along with many of the clean guitar melodies that sit beneath the vocals, make this song the closest thing to a ballad the band have ever done. It works well however, as the chorus is heavier with the growls to hit home who wrote the song, and just helps to diversify the album's sound. This is one of the two songs here co-written by Christopher Amott, who also provided some of the clean guitar and keyboard work on the song, and it makes you wonder if the Arch Enemy would have done more songs of this nature if he was still in the band.

If anyone was worried that Arch Enemy were going soft, the next song Murder Scene should put any rumours of that nature to bed. This has a very similar sound to the raw melodic death metal found on 2001's Wages of Sin with razor-sharp riffs and plenty of guitar melodies cutting through thanks to Amott and Loomis. This is one of the songs that instantly stood out to me on first listen to this album, and it remains a firm favourite of mine. The chorus is a real winner, and the explosive guitar solo really recalls the band's early days. First Day in Hell opens with some doomy clean guitar melodies with a bleak atmospheric backing, but soon opens out with a grinding mid-paced riff that sounds suitably evil to be following on from the intro. The song does pick up the pace when the vocals come in, but it never really reaches thrash speed, retaining a little of the opening groove. White-Gluz shows off the real diversity of her voice throughout this song, with some of her deepest growls yet during the verses before unleashing some higher screams elsewhere. This is another one that stood out on first listen, and is still a song I enjoy hugely. The riffing here is a little different to the band's typical sound, which I think makes it stand out. Saturnine is a short instrumental interlude, featuring some guitar leads over Johansson's piano, which leads nicely into Dreams of Retribution which opens out with a strong keyboard presence but explodes into a fast metal anthem with plenty of dual-guitar riffing and powerful drumming. Johansson's keyboard presence is strongly featured throughout, providing an atmospheric backing. When the riffs slow down towards the chorus, some gothic harpsichord melodies work alongside the guitars to create a sound that is quite unlike anything heard on an Arch Enemy album before. There is lengthy instrumental section here too, which sees Amott and Loomis trading solos throughout. The chemistry between the two guitarists is evidently very strong, which only makes the decision to not include Loomis in the album's creative process even more strange. Incidentally, this is the other song on the album co-written by Christopher Amott, showing that he was probably always responsible for some of the more 'off the wall' elements on previous Arch Enemy albums. My Shadow and I is more of a thrash number, with a strong guitar riff that carries the song throughout and forms the backbone of the verses. The choruses are a bit more anthemic than your average thrash number, but that is still the overarching mood that fills the song. White-Gluz's vocals in the chorus are positively evil however, and it is amazing that she manages to create this anthemic sound while singing with such venom. This shows off her skills as a vocalist, and seems that she only gets better with each album she participates in. The album's closing number, A Fight I Must Win, has a strong orchestral presence throughout and opens with strings, before a powerful mid-paced riff kicks in. While sometimes the guitars are playing alone, there are many instances here where the symphonic elements are added which provide counter melodies to the guitar riffs and add some emotional depth. Again, this is something that the band has not used much before in the past, so it makes the song stand out. The more 'epic' feel of the song makes it a perfect closing number for the album and rounds everything off nicely. Overall, Will to Power is more diverse than usual for Arch Enemy and as a result is a bit of a grower. War Eternal was classic Arch Enemy through and through, so was a fairly immediate listen, but the songs here take longer to reveal their intricacies. It is great to see the band trying a few new elements here, and I hope this is something they continue to do moving forward.

The album was released on 8th September via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional video for The World is Yours.


Saturday, 30 September 2017

Anathema - Exeter Review

With the exception of any project that involves Steven Wilson, it is probably fair to say that Anathema are one of the biggest modern progressive rock acts around. With a career that dates back to the early 1990s, and an expansive discography that covers a multitude of sounds, moods, and textures, Anathema are a band that are worth some time investigating and exploring. My introduction to Anathema's music was by taking a punt on their 2012 album Weather Systems not too long after it's release, and they have slowly grown on me over time since. My love for the band was truly cemented last November when I witnessed a truly masterful concert of their's in Cardiff, and ever since I have been listening to Anathema's music at every opportunity. This led to me pre-ordering their eleventh album The Optimist, the first time that I had actively awaited their new album, and thoroughly enjoying it's contents when it was released back in June (in fact I reviewed the album here). The Optimist felt like the album the band had been working towards since 2010's We're Here Because We're Here, and it has received plenty of critical acclaim around the world. When I saw that some UK shows were added to their extensive European tour, tickets were snapped up immediately. Luckily for me they included an Exeter date to their itinerary, which is only around an hour's drive from home in Plymouth. I had previously seen the band perform an excellent acoustic show in the city's Cathedral in 2015, so it was great to see the band return to the city - although this time in the less-grand surrounds of the Phoenix Arts Centre. Anathema shows usually attract healthy crowds, and it was good to see a large crowd in the venue throughout the evening. The crowd was one of the most diverse that I have seen in a while too, with a good mix of ages and 'types' of people - ranging from out and out metalheads to trendier students. That shows the wide appeal of the band's music, and I always feel that Anathema have the potential to become really huge with the right exposure.

Before Anathema's set however, the crowd was treated to just under an hour of music from French blackgaze band Alcest. While I had heard of the band prior to this concert, I was unfamiliar with the band's work. I soon found out that the band's music is largely instrumental, often focusing on meandering atmospheric guitar passages interspersed with heavier sections with off-kilter riffing. Vocals did surface occasionally, ranging from high-pitched cleans to harsh black metal rasps, but the majority of the band's work seems to be instrumental. I cannot say that I really enjoyed the band's set, although some of the guitar melodies were quite hypnotic and melodic, but the meandering arrangements really made the music tiresome after a while. There seemed to be quite a few fans of the band in attendance however, so they received a healthy reception all throughout their set. In fairness a muddy sound mix did not help the nuances of the music shine through, but I doubt my opinion of Alcest would have changed too much with a better sound as their sort of music is just not my thing.

Despite Alcest's solid reception, it was Anathema that the majority of people were here to see, and they impressed with a near-two hour set packed full of highlights from their recent few albums. The concert started in a fairly unconventional way, as Danny Cavanagh (guitar/keyboards/vocals) took to the stage alone with an swirling atmospheric intro tape behind him and began to absentmindedly solo over the top of it, this then led into San Francisco, the instrumental piece from the new album, which slowly introduced other members of the band. By the time the song was over, all six of the band were on the stage and immediately segued into both parts of Untouchable. The transition was somewhat jarring, as it missed out the song's iconic guitar intro, but picked up as soon as Vincent Cavanagh (vocals/guitar/keyboards/percussion) began to really belt out the lyrics. The two-part song is one of the band's best in my opinion, and it is always a treat to hear it live. The piano-driven second part, which features Vincent and Lee Douglas (vocals) trading vocals lines with ease, in particular always hits home and the crowd sung along loudly with the band. Three newer numbers followed, with the electronic rock of Can't Let Go and the soaring vocals of Endless Ways really captivating the crowd. It was the title track of the new album however that really impressed me. The gorgeous ballad, sung mostly by Vincent, it an awesome track and it came across really well live. The second half of the set was filled with songs from the band's other more recent work. Fan-favourite Thin Air went down as well as always, despite Danny saying the song would be retired for a bit soon, and Lightning Song was a real showcase for Lee to showcase her stunning voice. The vocal interplay between her and Vincent is a big part of the band's modern sound, and it is always great to hear the two play off each other. Another big highlight of this second part of the set was the lengthy prog epic Universal. Written by John Douglas (drums/percussion), the song has a slightly different feel to the rest of the band's work, with a murkier atmosphere and a fairly lengthy guitar solo from Danny towards the end. This transitioned nicely into the main set closer, Closer, which features dancey electronic beats, processed vocals, and a strong bassline from Jamie Cavanagh. By the end of the song, Vincent, Danny, and Daniel Cardoso (keyboards/drums) were all behind their keyboards, which brought the main set to a synth-heavy end. A lengthy encore followed, starting off with the slow-burning Distant Satellites which is always a monster when played live. The subtle electronics clash with the hard-hitting percussion throughout and it makes for an excellent live experience. A short impromptu version of a Hans Zimmer piece of music followed, before a couple more from the new album were showcased. The largely instrumental Springfield, with Lee's sparse vocal lines, atop a guitar riff from Danny backed up by Cardoso's piano. The album's closing number Back to the Start was then played live for only the second time and it really came across well. The song has a somewhat anthemic feel, and saw Vincent really digging deep for an emotionally-charged vocal performance. Then, after a short section of Pink Floyd's Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Anathema launched into their traditional final number Fragile Dreams, a rocky guitar-led piece that features a soaring chorus that was sung by everyone in attendance. By this point it was nearly 11pm and the band left the stage to a huge cheer from the large crowd. The setlist was:

San Francisco
Untouchable - Part 1
Untouchable - Part 2
Can't Let Go
Endless Ways
The Optimist
Thin Air
Lightning Song
Dreaming Light
The Beginning and the End
Universal
Closer
-
Firelight
Distant Satellites
{Unknown} [Hans Zimmer cover]
Springfield
Back to the Start
Shine on You Crazy Diamond [Pink Floyd cover]/Fragile Dreams

Anathema are really riding on a high at the moment. This large tour seems to be a success for them, and reviews for The Optimist are still coming in. I hope that it will not be too long before another opportunity to see this great band live comes around.