Thursday, 30 July 2015

Tremonti's 'Cauterize' - Album Review

Mark Tremonti is known in the hard rock and metal worlds as the lead guitarist and songwriter for both Creed and Alter Bridge - two bands which have had huge success and have legions of fans all over the world. It was with Creed that Tremonti rose to fame and their mix of hard rock and grunge almost defined heavy, commercial music in the 1990s. Their second album, 1999's Human Clay, has solid over 20 million copies world wide; which is a testament to just how big Creed were (and, to a lesser extent, still are). When Creed came to an end in 2004, Tremonti and the rest of the band (minus singer Scott Stapp) formed Alter Bridge with Myles Kennedy, who is now one of the most famous frontmen of the current generation. Alter Bridge have released four critically acclaimed albums since then, and have toured the world over. In Europe at least, Alter Bridge are filling arenas, and are one of the biggest hard rock acts of the day. Not content with working with two huge bands (there was a Creed reunion album and tour in 2009) Tremonti also occasionally works on solo material while Alter Bridge are having some downtime (and while Kennedy tours with Slash). He released his first solo album All I Was in 2012 and, unsurprisingly, it was very well received. It was a heavier album than anything he had been a part of before, and showed that Tremonti had some serious metal chops to go with his more widely known hard rock ones. Tremonti has always been a big fan of metal music, particularly thrash, and some of this was present on All I Was. Joined by guitarist Eric Friedman (who also played the album's bass guitar) and drummer Garrett Whitlock, the three made a great album that surprised a lot of metalheads who were initially dismissive of Tremonti due to his post-grunge history. Bassist Wolfgang Van Halen joined the band for the live shows, and has remained on board for the second album under the 'Tremonti' banner: Cauterize. Sound wise, I would say this album is a little more diverse than All I Was, but it still focuses primarily on the metal side of Tremonti's playing. There are plenty of moody and atmospheric moments to be found however, which sets this album apart from the previous one. Another album, tentatively titled Dust, was also recorded alongside Cauterize, so Tremonti fans have that one to look forward to sometime in the future!

The album gets off to a strong start with Radical Change which, ironically, picks up nicely where All I Was left off. The song's fast, thrashy main riff drives the song along nicely, and is sure to impress metal fans. Whitlock's drumming is also noteworthy here, and he keeps up well with Tremonti's guitar to create an infectious musical passage. Tremonti's vocals are also very strong, and he seems to be continually improving as a vocalist. Having only become a lead vocalist recently, it is amazing how far he has come in a short space of time. The chorus of this song is a testament to that, and the emotion his voice holds works well. Such is the power of his voice, that the song's guitar solo actually seems to be overshadowed somewhat by the vocals - something which you would not expect when it comes to Tremonti! Flying Monkeys is next and lays down a savage, slow groove from the outset. While not quite doom standard, the slowness of the main riff really helps to make the song powerful. When I first heard this song I was not that impressed, but repeated listens had made me realise how great it is. The groove just worms its way into your brain, and the understated, slow chorus is very memorable and sees Tremonti backed up by the band who provide some excellent backing vocals. The album's title track follows and this is another excellent song. The fast riffing is back, and the verses are so full of strong vocal melodies that I defy anybody to not enjoy it. This was definitely one of the most immediate songs on the album, and the chorus packs a real punch with its strong alternative rock feel. It actually has a sound similar to some of Alter Bridge's debut album, so fans who like that should love this too. I have a feeling this song will become a highlight of the band's live set. Arm Yourself is similar, but lacks the standout melodies of Cauterize. This is song is more about the heavy riffs and powerful drumming to get the metal fans on side. Whitlock really outdoes himself on this album, and this song is a great example of his style and skills. There is a great, melancholic mid-section that helps to break up the metal riffing, and leaves Arm Yourself as another enjoyable tune. In contrast, Dark Trip is a slower tune. Clean guitar melodies and rumbling bass lines fuse well to create an oppressive sound that Tremonti does well to sing over. This is another song that grows on you over repeated listens, and features some really excellent bluesy lead playing in places from the man himself. This song shows a different side of Tremonti's playing and songwriting abilities, and works well as a break from the heavier numbers that came before it.

Another Heart was the song released online prior to the album's release to give fans a taste of what was to come, and it it easy to see why. It is a very easy listen, and contains probably what is the biggest chorus on the album. The vocal melodies are extremely strong throughout the whole of the song, which is important as some of the riffs here are less interesting than on some of the more technical tracks on the album. That being said, I really like the guitar solo on this song, and the catchy nature of the vocals make this song an easy one to like. Fall Again is another slower number, that has a real ballad feel, despite the heavier choruses. The verses are more gentle though, with some acoustic guitar in the mix to help this, and some very heartfelt vocals from Tremonti that demonstrate he has a fairly large vocal range. It is another strong song that shows his maturity as a songwriter and helps add to the diversity of the album. Tie the Noose gets back to the heaviness, but dials back on the speed somewhat. This song is more of a mid-paced rocker, which has a powerful chugging riff and verses that are made great with a prominent, snaking bass line. This song is the perfect speed for headbanging, and that will probably make it a great live song. Sympathy has a big radio rock feel, which seems a little out of place when placed next to the rest of the material on this album. For that reason, this is probably the album's weakest song, and seems somewhat trying to appease the Creed fans who might be checking this album out. It is not an awful song by any means, but it does contain too many hallmarks of the generic rock music that was filling the radio waves at the beginning of this millennium. The album comes to a close with Providence, which definitely makes sure the album ends well after the slight miss-step of Sympathy. Again, there is a bit of an Alter Bridge vibe here, and the song is a bit longer than the rest of the album's songs. There are plenty of great mid-paced riffs here, and the song even has a bit of a progressive vibe in places as the song continues to change and evolve throughout its duration. There a slight epic feel about it too, which makes it a great choice as an album-closing number. Overall, Cauterize is a strong follow-up to All I Was and proves that Tremonti's solo band has a long-term future alongside his day job in Alter Bridge. I am glad that he now has a project where he can show off his metal chops, as this is a side of his playing that has been largely hidden from the public until fairly recently.

The album was released on 8th June 2015 via FRET12. Below is the band's promotional lyric video for Another Heart.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Armored Saint's 'Win Hands Down' - Album Review

Despite never really becoming household names, Armored Saint have always been popular. Their no-nonsense brand of 1980's heavy metal brought them a fair amount of success in their early years, and since reforming between 1993-2003, and again since 2008; the band retain a certain cult status and have plenty of dedicated fans around the world. 2015 sees the release of Win Hands Down, the band's seventh studio album, and their first in five years. Sound wise, the band have always stuck out like a sore thumb a little among their contemporaries. They were never flashy or melodic enough to fit into the hair metal (and related bands) scene, and never heavy enough to be considered thrash. Armored Saint have always carried the torch for classic heavy metal, and their sound has not changed much throughout their career. The band was dormant for much of the 1990s while frontman John Bush travelled the world with thrash titans Anthrax, which helped to shine a light on the band's earlier albums somewhat. Since reforming however, Armored Saint have taken things leisurely and only recorded and toured when they feel like it. Clearly content with their current status, the band just do what they do for enjoyment. Fans of the band will know what to expect from a new Armored Saint release, and Win Hands Down is not likely to surprise anyone. The band's simple, big-riffed approach is present here; and Bush's gritty vocals are as passionate as ever. He has never been the world's most melodic singer, but his power is what makes him a strong singer. His vocal melodies are very simple and not always that memorable; but when you hear him sing you cannot help but feel the emotion he puts into his performances. The majority of the album was written by Bush and bassist Joey Vera, who has also been a member of progressive metal band Fates Warning since 2000, and their writing partnership is as strong as ever. These two have always been at the forefront of Armored Saint's songwriting, and on Win Hands Down they have written another nine solid heavy metal tunes. Joining Bush and Vera are fellow original members guitarist Phil Sandoval and drummer Gonzo Sandoval; along with long-time guitarist Jeff Duncan. This line-up has been together since 1990 (break-ups aside of course) and have really gelled together into a well-oiled machine.

The gets off to a strong start with the blistering title track. A slightly thrashy riff forms the backbone of the song, and the high-energy verse grab you by the scruff of your neck and refuses to let you go.  Vera's bass guitar really helps to drive the song, and plenty of bursts of strong lead guitar helps to add melody to the song. The song's chorus is quite catchy too, with Bush's soaring vocals and simple melodies. Mid-way through, the song has a great atmospheric section with swirling effects and some distant soloing. This does not last long however, as the song cracks it back up and the 'proper' guitar solo hits. Mess is up next, and it is quite a dynamic tune. The verses have a slightly progressive feel with some interesting, almost tribal drumming. There are also plenty of great riffs scattered throughout the song, with each one bringing something new to the table. An Eastern-sounding section is also thrown in to add yet more variety, and the song possesses another solid chorus that shows off Bush's skill as a vocalist. An Exercise in Debauchery is more of a standard heavy metal track, but it is no worse of for being so. The main riff has a solid groove to it, and some flashy guitar breaks in the verses help to add extra melody between Bush's vocal lines. Gonzo Sandoval really displays his chops throughout this song with some great drum breaks, and a really catchy beat throughout the chorus. The classic metal vibe is reinforced with some fast, but bluesy soloing; plus there is even room for a short bass solo! A big bass riff and some atmospheric guitar lines herald Muscle Memory's arrival. The slightly progressive vibes from Mess are back here, and the song builds up gradually to a powerful chorus which is one of the most instant moments of the album. It is one of the longest songs on the album at just over seven minutes long, and it crams a lot of music into this time. Again, there are lots of memorable riffs here that will stick in your head, and a fantastic guitar solo that is one of the best I have heard in a long while. It starts off slowly, and gradually builds up to a shredding climax in a way that mirrors the way the song builds on itself too. This is probably my favourite song on the album, and it shows the band at their collective best. That Was Then, Way Back When is back to fast metal territory, and it really rocks! The chugging verses are sure to get the blood pumping as Vera's powerful bass cuts through mix; and the chorus is another winner with some big backing vocals to help Bush with the soaring notes. It works well to pack a punch after the more complex previous song.

With a Full Head of Steam features the guest vocals of Pearl Aday, who's tough voice works well when singing duet-style with Bush. After a slow start, the song really kicks off with a in-your-face riff and some great double-bass drumming from Gonzo Sandoval. After Muscle Memory, this is probably my next favourite song from the album, as the furious riffing and general attitude the song represents really draw you in and make you want to bang your head! This is a very uncomplicated song, but this is what makes it work so well. Once again, the riffs here are stellar and make this song continually enjoyable on repeated listens. With its acoustic intro, In an Instant starts out like a ballad, but it soon morphs into another rocker that has a great mid-paced feel to it. The acoustic moments to return throughout, and are mixed with some surprisingly delicate vocals from Bush and some effects-heavy guitar leads in the background. This makes for an interesting song, and the transitions between the acoustic and metal sections do not feel at all forced. This actually is the album's longest song, but thankfully it does not drag. This is another solid track that is enjoyable to listen to. Dive is more of a proper ballad, and features some excellent, mournful piano from session player Eric Rango. A gentle string arrangement helps to give some depth to the song, and adds to the overall melody. Bush is not the best singer for ballads, but he does an admirable job even though his voice does not really have the emotional depth to really do it justice. There is something of an Alice in Chains feel to parts of the song, as the backing vocals mix in and give that grunge tone to everything. There is another great guitar solo here, that adheres to the 'less is more' adage. After two slower songs, the album's final song, Up Yours, is suitably faster. This is another uncomplicated song, but it works well to bring the album to a hard-hitting end. There are yet more killer riffs throughout this song, including a great dual guitar moment that is full of 1980s melodies. This is simple heavy metal at its finest and I am sure it would go down really well live with its fist-pumping chorus and headbanging riffs. Overall, Win Hands Down is another really solid album from Armored Saint. The album is surprisingly diverse and packs a lot of ideas into the music without ever feeling trite or overly-complicated.

The album was released on 1st June 2015 via Metal Blade Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Win Hands Down.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Paradise Lost's 'The Plague Within' - Album Review

Since forming in 1988, British death/doom/gothic metal band Paradise Lost have been at the forefront of their genre. While doom metal had been around for years prior to Paradise Lost's formation (you could argue that the majority of Black Sabbath's early output was pure doom metal), it was the so-called 'Peaceville Three' that brought doom metal to a bigger audience, and fused it with elements of death metal to create a heavy and menacing sound. Of the three, My Dying Bride are the band who have stayed the truest to their sound throughout their career; while Anathema are now indistinguishable from the band that released Serenades in 1993. Paradise Lost are somewhere in the middle, and have constantly attempted to evolve their sound while not straying too far from their roots. As they moved forward, the band incorporated more gothic and melancholic sounds into their music, while still retaining the heavy, doomy riffs and creepy atmosphere. Vocalist Nick Holmes gradually moved away from harsh vocals however, and by 1995's classic Draconian Times they were almost entirely absent from his repertoire. They experimented with a The Sisters of Mercy-esque sound on 1997's One Second; and with synthpop overtones on 1999's Host - and ever since the band have used a mix of these sounds, along with their early doom metal influences to create plenty of heavy albums. 2012's Tragic Idol, the band's last release, was very typical of the band's modern sound and places a large emphasis on Greg Mackintosh's guitar leads. The Plague Within, the band's fourteenth studio album, sees the band return to their early sound somewhat. Influenced by his successful side-project Vallenfyre, Mackintosh has put the death metal elements back into the band's sound. Holmes' recent inclusion into the ranks of death metal supergroup Bloodbath ensured that harsh vocals would enter into his conscience again. This has resulted in the heaviest Paradise Lost album in quite some time, but the band have not lost any of their now-trademark melancholy. Jamie Gomez Arellano's production is key here. The sound is extremely clear, which helps the heaviness, and the guitar tones chosen convey that melancholy emotion that is weaved throughout the band's discography. Fans of old-school death/doom will really enjoy what Paradise Lost have done here, and have brought that late 1980s sound into the 21st Century with ease.

The album gets underway with No Hope in Sight, and the sound of this song typifies the rest of the album. Mackinstosh and fellow guitarist Aaron Aedy combine well throughout, mixing dark, gothic riffs and melodic leads to create the band's trademark melancholic sound. A dense verse section with Holmes' clean vocals standing out is what makes the song so powerful, and Steve Edmondson's bass guitar really dominates this section. Sections of harsh vocals are dotted throughout too, and shows that Holmes has lost none of his grit over the years. Terminal picks up the pace a bit with Adrian Erlandsson's double bass drumming leading the way. There is more than a big chunk of melodic death metal influence here, possibly brought in from Erlandsson with his years as a member of At the Gates - in fact, this song is quite reminiscent of their latest album At War With Reality. Holmes growls throughout the song, which gives it serious power; and discordant riffing stops and starts throughout creating a schizophrenic feel that really suits the band. This is the heaviest they have been for quite some time. An Eternity of Lies opens with a beautiful orchestral arrangement that soon morphs into a groove-based riff that knocks you off your feet. Heather Thompson (Tapping the Vein) provides some guest vocals on the song, that compliments Holmes' croon well, and harks back to the band's early days. Elsewhere, there is definitely a big Draconian Times vibe here with ringing guitar arpeggios and a certain gothic beauty. This song also includes a great solo from Mackintosh, whose feel has always been unrivalled in the genre. Punishment Through Time is up next, and this feels quite similar to the sound the band has been using on their more recent work. Holmes' more aggressive clean vocals are used here, and the song would have sat nicely on Tragic Idol and not seemed out of place. There is a more traditional heavy metal feel here, with a pacy riff and some tight power chord chugging throughout the verses. While Paradise Lost usually prefer the slower songs, they also are quite adept at speeding things up when the song requires it. To fit with that traditional metal feel, there are also plenty of short bursts of lead guitar to fill the voids between vocal lines. Video choice Beneath Broken Earth is almost the opposite of the previous song. It is a flat out doom track with some seriously heavy riffs that creep along slowly as Holmes growls menacingly over the top of them. Fans of the band's early albums are likely to find a lot to like here, and Mackintosh once again shows off with plenty of extended lead sections. This is a heavy song, and sees Paradise Lost at their most dense and potent.

Sacrifice the Flame opens with a subtle bass melody backed up once again by a string section. After the heaviness of the previous song, it is good to hear Holmes' croon again, and he mixes it up well with his harsh vocals throughout this song. The main riff for this song is one of my favourites on the album, and Mackintosh and Aedy create a huge sound with their two guitars. Despite how slow it is, it is still filled with plenty of melody; and this only increases mid-way through when the strings come back to overpower the guitars and create something quite special. The strings remain for the next number Victim of the Past and the sparse intro reminds me of the band's mid-period where they were experimenting a lot with their sound. This soon changes though, and another crunching riff comes in to change the mood. The strings remain though, and surround the heavy guitars with a bright sheen that compliments Holmes' harsh vocals well. Melancholic moments are spread throughout the track too which makes this song one of the most dynamic on the album. The melodic death metal sound returns in Flesh from Bone and Erlandsson gets to show off some of his skill as a drummer. Paradise Lost albums find him more restrained than he is with the majority of his other bands, but the simpler style fits the band's music so it is right that he does not overplay. This song however gives him a chance to mix it up again, and there are plenty of big drum fills here and fast footwork from the great Swedish drummer. Elsewhere, Holmes once again shreds his throat with some great harsh vocals, and some tremolo-picked riffing really enhances the extreme metal side of the band's sound and chokes any life out of the piece. It works well though, and gives the listener a shock after the slower songs that have come before. Cry Out again has a more traditional heavy metal sound, with a surprisingly bouncy riff that is not something the band would usually do. This is a guitarists' song, with plenty of big guitar leads, often sitting under the vocal lines, and plenty of memorable riffs that all fit nicely together. The album's final song Return to the Sun opens like a creepy horror film with some spooky sounds, which soon leads into another great doom riff that is perfect for the album's finale. There is something quite anthemic about this song, and I have a feeling it would go down really well live as the chorus is very simple and memorable. The song features a bit of everything that has been used on the album so far, and works well to bring everything together and conclude the album. Overall, The Plague Within is a great album, and one that grows on you more with each listen. With it, Paradise Lost are continuing their resurgence, and I am sure it will bring back a few fans who may have been turned off by their more experimental work.

The album was released on 1st June 2015 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Beneath Broken Earth.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Helloween's 'My God-Given Right' - Album Review

As far as power metal goes, Helloween pretty much wrote the book. Their second and third albums, the fabled Keeper of the Seven Keys albums (released in 1987 and 1988), were probably the first albums to contain all the hallmarks of power metal that we know today. The soaring high vocals from-then frontman Michael Kiske, duelling lead guitars, fast double bass drumming, and extremely melodic songwriting was the band's secret; and they have gone on to influence countless bands since. The Helloween of today is quite different of the Helloween of then - but they are no less important or potent. The Godfathers of Power Metal have had a very prolific career, releasing albums on a regular basis and touring solidly. Plenty of line-up changes has lead to a fairly varied discography, with each member past and present bringing something new and exciting to the table. The band's current line-up has been together for ten years now, as 'newest' member drummer Daniel Löble joined the band in 2005. He is joined by founding members Michael Weikath and Markus Großkopf; long-time frontman Andi Deris; and guitarist Sascha Gerstner who has been injecting plenty of energy into the band since joining in 2002. The album's produced by this particular line-up of Helloween have all been very good. Starting with the sprawling Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy in 2005, up until 2013's Straight Out of Hell (which I reviewed here), Helloween have been continuing to justify their legendary status with catchy, upbeat power metal. 2010's 7 Sinners is probably still the best of the current bunch however, but they are all enjoyable. This is also true of their latest album My God-Given Right, their fifteenth studio album overall. Helloween have nothing left to prove, and this is an album that just showcases them doing what they do best. Anyone familiar with any of the band's recent output will know what to expect here. There are plenty of up-tempo power metal numbers, some mid-paced crunchy rock songs, and a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure. Anyone who enjoyed anything the band has released since 2005 ought to also enjoy this too. As with most of the band's recent albums though, it could have done with being a little shorter as, at just over the hour mark, there is room for some filler here and there. It also is the band's first release on the Nuclear Blast label since 2003's Rabbit Don't Come Easy.

The album opens up nicely with the heavy power metal of Heroes. The song has a crunchy riff, that is backed up nicely with Löble's drumming, but the verses have a quieter feel with subtle keyboards and Deris' melodic vocals leading the way. It is not the most remarkable song the band have ever turned out, but it is a solid enough opening for the album. It is typical of the band's modern sound with a fairly memorable chorus and a melodic guitar solo. Battle's Won (not sure about that apostrophe..) ups the quality. The opening soaring guitar lead gets things off to a good start, and the song's fast verses are exciting, and based on a powerful riff. Deris really owns this song vocally. Sometimes people are critical of his live performances, but on record he always delivers. He might not be the most diverse of metal vocalists, but he always knows how to write a catchy vocal melody, and has been a key songwriter for the band since joining. The album's title track is next and this is another fairly standard power metal tune, like the album's opening number. It has catchy lead guitar work throughout that makes the song stand out somewhat. It is not the most remarkable song though, which makes me wonder why the band decided to film a video for it. There are better songs later on that would have made better videos, but it is still enjoyable and has a decent chorus. Despite some stupid lyrics, Stay Crazy is a decent tune too. It has what is probably the most accessible chorus on the album so far, and Deris uses the gritty end of his vocal range to give the song more power. The Eastern-sounding guitar solo also is interesting, and when it explodes with speed it gets very exciting. Lost in America is one of my favourite songs on the album. This is classic upbeat Helloween power metal it it's best. The chorus has a really anthemic feel to it, the lyrics are quite amusing, and musically it is very strong with good lead guitars and catchy riffs. While this song breaks no new ground for the band, it reinforces what they do best again. This is a song that would have been perfect to film a video for, so I wonder why they chose My God-Given Right instead? Russian Roulé is a slightly heavier rocker with some powerful metal riffing, dense guitar leads, and Deris' deeper vocals. There is a slight thrash feel about the guitar tones here, which adds to the heavier feel and the grit the track possesses. It is another strong track that works well when following the light-hearted Lost in America. Not all Helloween songs are that upbeat, and this a good example of their heavier work.

After the rather bland quasi-ballad The Swing of a Fallen World, we reach Like Everybody Else. This is another slower song, but this one gets it right and is really enjoyable. Deris uses many different many vocal styles throughout. During the verses he sounds quite different to usual, but by the time the powerful chorus comes around he is more recognisable. There is quite a bluesy feel to some of the guitar work in the song too, which helps it to stand out from the rest of the album. Creatures in Heaven is another fast song, and one that gets back to doing what the band do best. There is lots of flashy guitar work here, including a great instrumental section where both Weikath and Gerstner impress with their guitar skills. The chorus is also excellent, with some really powerful melodies and drumming that really forces you to sing along. If God Loves Rock 'n' Roll is more classic upbeat Helloween. The groovy verses are very enjoyable which sees Deris really lead the charge with his vocal melodies; and the song's chorus is a fast affair with a bouncy guitar riff that helps it drive along. As we reach the end of the album, we are faced with three very strong tracks, and all for different reasons. Living on the Edge is Großkopf's sole writing contribution to the album, and it is great. While he never writes as many songs as the other band members, they are always of high quality. This is no exception, with one of the album's best choruses and an instrumental section with a really Sabbathy riff that has a lot of weight to it. Up next is Claws which is a heavier fast song with an explosive intro that reminds me a little of fellow German band Accept in places. Keyboards surround this track, which gives some class to the heaviness, and contrasts greatly with a riff that sounds like it could have come from a NWOBHM band's repertoire. This is easily one of the best songs on the album, as it really packs a punch with numerous powerful riffs, and Deris unleashes some excellent screams at times throughout. It also has a killer chorus with some excellent drumming and very catchy melodies. The album's final song is You, Still of War which is quite a diverse song. There is something quite progressive about the arrangements here, and there are many sections here that fit seamlessly together. From the quiet opening, to the heavy chorus - this song has it all. This song takes quite a few listens to really appreciate, but when you do it is extremely strong and brings the album to an interesting and exciting end. Overall, My God-Given Right is another good album from Helloween. While there is some filler here, there are enough good tunes to make this an enjoyable listen for any melodic metal fan.

The album was released on 1st June 2015 via Nuclear Blast Records. Below is the band's promotional video for My God-Given Right.