Top Ten: Thrash Binge!

I kind of have this musical habit…well, “habit” is kind of disconcerting. Think of it as a productive (wallet damaging) obsession.  Or, since we’re so obsessed with buzzwords, think of it as I like to “binge” listen to “insane” and “shocking” music. All jokes aside, I become obsessed whatever musical style strikes my fancy.  This results in a ridiculous excavation into said subject, its history, its influences, its roots.  One week, I may find jazz to be utterly enticing, another week, hip hop.  Shit, I was so deep into gothic metal at one point, I had to step back because, shit, that style is so damn depressing.  Okay, I digress. My current victim is thrash metal! Yes, there will be some Big 4 in this list so don’t complain when Master of Puppets — you already know this thing is going to be there — shows its ugly face.  Also, this is all subjective to my personal taste. Don’t go all metalhead on me when Overkill’s discography is neglected.  It ain’t gonna happen. Okay, let’s go!

10.  Slayer (Seasons In The Abyss)

Oh, look at that!  I’m such a tease. Seasons is the culmination and maturity of Slayer’s sound, as influential as it is brutal.  There is everything “thrash” in this record, from the explosive, hellish nightmare anthem, “War Ensemble,” to the crunchy and overwhelmingly haunting “Dead Skin Mask.”  Yet, what separates this album from, let’s say, Reign in Blood, is atmosphere.  Songwriting wise, Slayer previously leaned on repetitive structures, going for all out brutality and instrumental madness.  South of Heaven, meanwhile, delved into atmospheric territory, but lacked variety, serving as a brake pump rather than a sound realization. Here, however, Slayer thickened the production, added some melody, and gave the reigns to Hanneman and Lombardo.  That double kick never gets old.  This record is sonic violence in its most primitive form.

9.  Anthrax (Among the Living)

Ugh, I know, that’s two Big 4 bands in a row.  You can’t deny that Anthrax deserves recognition for their punk infused, in-your-face — yep, get ready for the oxymorons — thrashing.  Enhancing Metallica’s Bay Area output, these east coasters hit metaldom with a ferocity unheard of in the scene.  It all started with Spreading the Disease, a hybrid strain of thrash and punk, intensified by one of metal’s most overlooked vocalists, Joey Belladonna. Among the Living is both their breakout and seminal production.  The record itself is defined by sophomore hit, “Caught in a Mosh.” As soon as that bass hits, brains start beating against skulls. This is an album every headbanger should own, if not for its unbelievable rhythm section, then its general kickassness.  A shout out to The Big 4’s redheaded step child.

8.  Sodom (Agent Orange)

Aside from Dark Angel, American thrash never quite reached eleven on the insanity amp.  Sure, there was plenty of chug riffing and speedy skank beating to go around, but when it came down to pure, violent aggression and speed, Germany — who else? — had to pick up the slack. Apart of the prestigious, “Teutonic Thrash,” club, Sodom broke in the eighties with Agent Orange, an absolute brutal listen touting socially aware lyrics and breakneck speed  Say it to yourself: Teutonic Thrash.  It’s so metal! Anyways, this album separated itself from the pack through its unique approach to the thrash formula, taking the most extreme path, but never losing its melodic sensibility.  The band would go on to pump out classics like M16 and Code Red, but their peak stood within the awesome cover image of Agent Orange.

7.  Sepultura (Beneath the Remains)

This is the band that put Brazil — and South America in general — on the metal map.  It’s truly a shame how overlooked they are, considering the influence of Beneath the Remains and their follow up, Arise.  Shit, Sepultura not only enhanced the thrash movement, but, to metaldom’s overwhelming disappointment, contributed to Nu-metal’s appearance with Roots. However, we, at Reviews From The Other Side, will let that slide.  We’ll say they innovated a genre, which, is all together, a good thing.  Back to Beneath the Remains; the LP offered a plethora of musical exploration that pushed thrash beyond sheer brutality.  Yet, there was still plenty of thrashery, no-nonsense riffage, and thundering rhythm.  The record’s sonic beratement still holds up today.  And, when you think of metal in South America, who is the first name to appear?  That’s right, Sepultura.  Oh, and is it safe to say, Beneath the Remains has the best album art?  

6.  Testament (The Legacy)

To say Testament does not belong in the Big 4 would be an insult to their namesake.  “Over the Wall,” “Do or Die,” and “First Strike is Deadly,” have done more for thrash than long hair and blue jean jackets.  The album’s non-stop, sonic violence is quintessential to the bay area scene,  featuring one of metal’s most dominating, yet overlooked, guitar/vocalist combo. For, reference, listen to “First Strike is Deadly.” Chuch Billy’s scream in the track’s conclusion rivals that of Chuck Schuldiner and Mikael Akerfeldt, and I say that with confidence. The Legacy, as a whole, brought neoclassical guitars to thrash, and pushed the subgenre into more technical territory.  Alex Skolnick…that’s all I need to say.

5.  Celtic Frost (To Mega Therion)

“Ugh,” “Hey!” – Tom G. Warrior

Maybe not the best from a technical standpoint, but influential nonetheless, Celtic Frost laid the foundation of black and death metal with To Mega Therion, fusing hard hitting, punk-infused riffs with dark, and often evil lyrics.  There are even symphonic elements in tracks like “Innocence and Wrath” and “Dawn of the Meggido.”  Within the album’s roots is a strong understanding of face smashing thrash.  “Circle of the Tyrants” does its best to bring black metal into play, and does so without deviating from the patented Frost sound; you know, the riding beats/riffs and gruff vocals from the Tom G. Warrior.  This record is, hands down, one of Europe’s finest metal releases.

4.  Slayer (Reign In Blood)

As soon as “Angel of Death[‘s]” opening riff leads into Lombardo’s trademark double kick, there is no question that this is the pinnacle of American thrash.  No question, the pinnacle.  Reign in Blood is one of those records that opens and closes on the perfect note.  I still get goosebumps throughout the entirety of “Postmortem/Raining Blood,” with its gorgeously brutal atmosphere and overall, blackened feel.  Yep, I’m being a cliche metalhead here. If the middle had more variation, we’d have our number one thrash record, but in this case, we need to call a spade a spade.  Most of the middle tracks, although nonstop in their monstrocity, lean a little too far on the repetitive side.  That doesn’t discredit the scope of Slayer’s vision, however.  They most definitely succeeded in creating one of the fastest, most brutal musical explorations in history. Reign in Blood has influenced countless metal bands since its inception and that cannot be ignored.

3.  Metallica (Ride the Lightning)

Oh, Ride the Lightning. I was torn between this, …And Justice for All, and Master of Puppets being number three, but we all know where the latter album resides; no spoilers there.  Anyways, Ride the Lightning is the LP that put Metallica on the map, featuring live and classic staples such as “Creeping Death,” “Fade to Black,” “Call of Cthulu,” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”  These four tracks are not only Metallica benchmarks, but benchmarks for heavy music in general.  Cliff Burton, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammet, and Lars Ulrich were at the top of their game, and it shows in “Fight Fire With Fire” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” where each instrument pulls heads directly into the floorboards.  They’re that heavy.  Don’t believe me?  Crank up Cliff Burton’s solo in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and you’ll have to change your pants before the guitars even come in.

2.  Kreator (Pleasure to Kill)

Get ready for a trip.  This album starts bloody and closes with a fucking massacre.  Kreator’s second LP, hailed a death metal pioneer record, is as brutal and fast as they come, and I mean that lightly.  Little melody, sheer brutality, you won’t find any power ballads or slow tempo tracks on Pleasure to Kill because, let’s face it, how can songs like “Ripping Corpse” and the title track be anything but mayhem.  Fuck, look at those titles!  So, in other words, Pleasure to Kill is a niche listen, appealing to extreme metal heads in search of something a little more morbid than the American metal scene.  With this record, the band cemented a plaque stating they are the creators, not the imitators of musical extremity.  What else can I say?  It would be foolish not to give Pleasure to Kill the number two spot, if not for its influence, then its absolute insanity.

1.  Metallica (Master of Puppets)

Thank you, Metallica, for saving heavy music from the spandex starletts.  Thank you, Metallica, for bringing denim, leather, and black into the scene.  And, my God, thank you for bringing melody into extreme songwriting. Master of Puppets is the quintessential thrash LP from the eighties, a benchmark of songwriting, rhythm, and melody.  I mean, who doesn’t lean on this record when learning heavy guitar?  Sure, Ride the Lightening had the perfect, “Fade to Black,” Hammett solo, but the intro riff in “Master of Puppets” stands as the thrash riff to learn.  On the other side, Lars Ulrich gets a lot of flak — courtesy of his love for trash can lids and ruining wallets — but his performances on “Battery,” “Master of Puppets,” “Sanitarium,” and “Orion,” stand up to his fellow speed artists. This is the final Metallica record featuring bassist, Cliff Burton, and almost feels prophetic at times, especially during the slower section of “Orion.”  Without a doubt, Master of Puppets is the best — well, personal favorite — thrash record…ever.

Honorable Mentions

In all honesty, I just didn’t want to write another thousand fucking words and make this a top 20 list.  So, here are more nominations (in no order).

Megadeth (Rust in Peace), Overkill (The Years of Decay), Exodus (Bonded In Blood), Kreator (Coma of Souls), Sodom (M16), Testament (The New Order), Dark Angel (Darkness Descends)

Disclaimer:  All rights, property, and content of the featured image belong to the artist.  Image found at https://fanart.tv/artist/05106775-5d45-4131-aecc-1177f813ba11/testament/.  I have, in no way, used said image for profit. If the artist wishes for the image to be removed for any reason, feel free to contact me.

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Live Review: Ghost – Black to the Future Tour 2015

Smoke, costumes, and Satan. What else can you ask from Swedish phenom, Ghost?

Okay, picture this:  you get tickets for this little band called Ghost or Ghost B.C., whatever the hell the United States music industry uses to sabotage the band’s namesake.  You don’t exactly know much about them besides the fact they make kickass shirts and walk around in costumes.  After wading through an explosive, psychedelic attack from English mind burners, Pursun, you think, “Hey, this might be an interesting show, an acid rock meets Halloween-type stunt with theatrics.”  Yet, then you notice that, for the first time in a long time, the concert venue is freezing cold.  Incense burns at the stage corners, gregorian chants echo from the speakers, and soon, the Nameless Ghouls start ripping at their instruments.  The crowd swells as Papa Emeritus — the anti-pope — cues set opener, Spirit, with Satanic madness.  This is a metal show, through and through.

I was converted.

It was obvious, as soon as the doors opened, that this was going to be an interesting spectacle.  Cosplayers — yes, you read that right — were scattered throughout the venue, inside and out.  Shit, I don’t even know why I’m writing like that’s a bad thing.  I even took some photos with a Nameless Ghoul before his inspiration started their set.  Near the end of the performance, Papa himself acknowledged a well done imitation, so every other viewpoint is void.  If Papa Emeritus says it is good. It is so.  And so it is.

“And don’t you forget it.”

But, that’s besides the point.  The crowd, for a medium sized venue, was passionate and loud, contributing to the experience with chants and sing-alongs.  For instance, with little guidance, every voice echoed from the rafters during, “Per Aspera Ad Inferi,” and it was obvious the band fed from the atmosphere, especially the guitarists, who, despite being masked, produced an electrifying, but dark stage presence. It was obvious these were no ordinary, rookie musicians trying to make it big.  They knew what the fuck they’re doing. Yet, we’ll probably never know their identity.  Once the haze surrounding Ghost’s lore disappears, and the world decides to pick on Slipknot again, we’ll ultimately learn that Jackson Browne and Dave Grohl decided to pursue that metal career they always wanted.  Don’t believe me?  The latter is actually probable.

So, enough about stage presence.  Who wants to read about atmosphere in a live review anyways?  Let’s talk about the goddamn music! I like to think of Ghost’s sound as if 70’s pop/hard rock took a stage dive into hell.  It’s odd. It’s enchanting.  It’s evil as hell. The setlist moved between the band’s three LP’s, providing a nice balance between heavy, balls to the wall metal anthems, courtesy of their debut record, to mid-tempo, atmospheric movements, and Abba-esque balladry. Oh, them Swedes…You Ghost fans know what track I’m talking about. Don’t get me wrong, “He Is,” is a damn great pop song, complete with moving melodies and beautiful harmonies.  Yet, it’s absolutely hilarious to see five musicians perform such an uplifting song about Satan.

WP_20151006_005

There was plenty of chaos to go around, from the explosive rendition of the band’s breakout track, “Ritual,” to their closing anthem, “The Monstrance Clock.”  Yes, at times the band sounded almost too good, all thanks to the playback guy doing what playback guys do.  Or, is it the sound guy? There’s so many “guys” in a production.  However, playback was expected.  The band utilizes multiple vocal layers in tracks like, “The Monstrance Clock,” and, “Deus Culpa,” not to mention bombastic, wall of sound production in tracks like “Infestissumam.”  God, I wished they performed that song. “Per Aspera Ad Infeni” didn’t feel the same without its over-the-top introduction.  Anyways, you guys get the point.  Ghost can’t be at fault for adding layers to the live production.

Overall, Ghost showed St. Louis why they are one of the leading modern metal/hard rock acts.  They brought theatrics in a hyperbolic sense, never quite taking themselves too seriously, but pushing boundaries enough to hike up the creepy factor.  It was all in good fun, a night punctuated by a classic hard rock sound, which, along with Pursun’s psychedelic introduction, provided audience members a nostalgic experience.  These guys can fucking play.  Go see them and bow for Lucifer’s Son!

RATING:  5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and properties of the header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://i.ytimg.com/vi/CnJ0i2AipXY/maxresdefault.jpg.  All rights, content, and properties off body image 1 belong to its owner.  Image found at https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/501584135958171648/T0qqgVxF.jpeg.  I have, in no way, used said images for profit.

Review: Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls

If Eternity Should Fail, at least we were able to hear The Book of Souls.  Is it safe to say Iron Maiden made a second comeback with their 16th LP?

Again, I apologize for the long lapse in reviews.  I had some personal issues, a move, and general writers block to attend to.  However, this is a metal review, damnit! Ain’t nobody got time for excuses.  So, let’s go!

Here we are, the peak of 2015’s metaldom. On one end, you have good Queensryche (and…well, Geoff Tate’s solo project) pumping out a new record, then you have Nile, Slayer, Motorhead, Soilwork, Ghost, even Coheed and Cambria — we can count them as metal, right? — upping the ante.  Shit, even Disturbed decided they weren’t going to sit quietly while the cool kids got to play. The list goes on and on. So, what better way to kick off the fall season other than Iron Maiden’s double album machine, The Book Of Souls?

My expectations were strangely low for this record. Perhaps a result of Maiden’s irrelevant, lack of inspiration in their predecessor, The Final Frontier.  Perhaps I was just pissed that Derek Riggs checked out of another Eddie opportunity.  Whatever, it doesn’t matter.  The first notes of, “If Eternity Should Fail,” grabbed that cynicism and castrated it.

Attribution: mirror.uk

Credit: mirror.uk

Yep, sit on that metaphor for a minute.  Oh, right, this isn’t a death metal review; my fault.

Initially, the band’s creativity returns with trademark energy and galloping riffs, all the while holding onto the darker, fuller sound of their post-Blaze era songwriting.  There are even hints of Seventh Son keyboards, serving the sound tastefully without delving into cheese territory.  You’d expect Steve Harris’ songwriting ability to falter, especially after the Maiden sound collage in The Final Frontier, but here, the structures, melodies, even the instrumentals, feel fresh and purposeful. I mean, each member — sans Niko McBrain — has multiple songwriting credits throughout the LP’s 11 monstrous tracks.

Maiden CD

Credit: Cover Dude

There’s no clever reason for this picture.  Eddie is just fucking awesome.

To put this in perspective, Steve Harris rarely attributed more than a few tracks to other members throughout Maiden’s tenure.  Such a melting pot of ideas breeds countless opportunities for failure.  I’ll admit the variety of credits turned me off at first, especially the Janick Gers note attached to “Book of Souls.”  Boy, was I wrong.  The album flows with the gallop of Harris, punctuated by Dickinson’s typical lyrical expeditions.  I say expeditions because, let’s face it, the guy cannot develop a typical verse/chorus/verse about cliche metal nonsense.  He’s the fucking Air Siren! If he wants to talk about triplanes in “Death or Glory,” then he damn well please!

Some may call The Book of Souls a pointless cash grab, but there is no way, no way epics, “The Red and the Black,” and the double LP’s title track reflect an uninspired effort. Sure, it’s hard to believe, other than contractual reasons, that Iron Maiden needs a third guitarist — no disrespect to shredder, Janick Gers — but solos are half the makeup of Maiden’s general sound.  So, to that, Reviews From the Other Side says, “The more, the merrier!”

Although the band’s songwriting takes a fresh breath in Book of Souls, there are moments of career-repetition scattered throughout the record, from copycat riffs to all-to-familiar song structures.  Luckily, we don’t get another, “Blood Brothers,” clone.  I’m looking at you, “No More Lies.” However, instead listeners suffer through a “Wasted Years” ripoff introduction riff in “Shadow of the Valley.”  This is more of an annoyance than a crutch. What else can you expect from a band whose discography stretches over fifteen LP’s, not including EP’s or live recordings/bootlegs?

Also, as is the bane of most double albums — unless we’re talking The Wall or any given Who rock opera — The Book of Souls suffers from the scope of its vision.  There are times, as in, “The Red and the Black,” where the need for epicness outweighs the will of short sighted listeners like myself.  I’m all for an epic sound, but when every track goes for that giant sound, the overall feel of the album starts to feel overblown. Iron Maiden successfully blended epic structures in the past, but practiced restraint, confining those over-the-top tracks into a section of the album.  Here, the band pushes extended running time over the cliff.

That said, each member contributes their talents with technical, musical prowess.  What else could you expect from these guys?  They’ve experienced the ups and downs of metaldom.  Shit, the band went through a mid-career lapse in musical inspiration, thanks in part to the Air Siren and Adrian Smith’s departure.  Yet, they bounced back, not once, but twice.  The Book of Souls places the spotlight on each member’s contribution, serving as more of a historical insight to Maiden’s discography than as a progression.  To that, I’ll say it again.  Lean in close so you can see the screen.

16 albums!

RATING:  4.5/5

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Live Review: Australian Pink Floyd

Kangaroos, boars, lasers, and good ol’ fashioned Pink Floyd. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

Pink Floyd is one of those bands destined for imitation. You name it, Porcupine Tree, Airbag, Circus Maximus, Radiohead, pretty much any band using extensive, spacey keyboards possess some kind of influence from Gilmour, Waters, Wright, and Mason. Out of this mess comes the dime-a-dozen cover band.  Yet, like Black Sabbath, such a classic sound is hard enough to imitate, let alone replicate. You can say my expectations for a Pink Floyd cover band are astronomical.  Sure, St. Louis has El Monstero, who are a extremely respectable band in their own right. I have yet to see them — ironic since they played here over the weekend — so I cannot express judgment just yet.

However, Australian Pink Floyd are the real deal.  They have it all, from Floyd’s iconic circle production screen, to the laser show, to backup singers, to the overall stage presence of their inspiration.  Shit, even Gilmour himself invited them to perform for his 50th birthday event.  2013 brought Aussie Floyd’s extensive reach into Real Floyd’s back catalog.  2015 brought soundscapes, hits, everything you’d want from a cover band, a cathartic experience with overwhelming visuals.

Led Zeppelin 2 kicked off the evening. Now, I’m unfamiliar with St. Charles’ family arena, but lord was the sound horrendous at first.  Imitator Plant’s voice — or ear monitor. Insert vocal excuse here — seemed to dissipate at times, leaving the poor singer to reach through his already limited register.  Think of “Immigrant Song.” You know those opening wails? Now, think “Immigrant Song” performed in its original key, but with actual Robert Plant’s aged vocal chords.  Not good. Not good at all.

Thankfully, imitation Bonzo held the performance together with a rousing rendition — and, might I say pummeling expression — of “Moby Dick,” “Heartbreaker,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” It also helped that, as the performance moved forward, the sound guy came out of his smoke stupor and equalized the freakin’ master.  As a result, Plant finally heard himself, Page overcame his hangover, and JPJ, well, JPJ stayed the same.  Calm and collected, just like his source material.  Good set overall, so-so performance.  Unfortunately, that’s to be expected from an opener.

Aussie Pink Floyd gets an entire point for starting their set on time. I’d say it only took the roadies fifteen minutes to sound check and finalize.  Fifteen minutes! In the wide, wide world of Rock n’ Roll, that’s unheard of.  So, kudos just for that, Aussies.

That’s enough blabbering.

“In The Flesh,” gets me every time. I know it’s coming, but that opening chord always comes out of nowhere…Bang!  Instantly, Australian Pink Floyd’s performance felt tighter than their previous stop in St. Louis.  Sound wise, everything clicked, the bass audible — shocking, right? — the guitars ear splitting, the vocals synchronized beautifully, the keys completely Wright-esque.  Unfortunately, Colin Wilson, albeit a fantastic bassist, still could not quite nail Water’s nasal delivery, but that’s just nitpicking on account of a reviewer looking for negativity in the wee hours of the night.

Also, as the band moved from “Learn to Fly,” to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part I-IV,” it was obvious the show was hit-centric.  And you know me, I’m all about those hits! Pink Floyd produced their strongest material between Animals, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall, but much of Aussie’s setlist could benefit from the oddball track here and there to please the Floydians and hipsters like myself.  Shit, trade “Learn To Fly,” for “Dogs,” and I wouldn’t have said anything. Or, “Set Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” that would’ve made the evening. Maybe I’m just speaking for myself now.

Okay, Dark Side, you win. The band’s most rousing moments — aside from the beautiful “Shine On…” — came from Floyd’s transcendental production, that thing classic radio has spammed for what feels like a century.  All I have to say is “The Great Gig in the Sky.” Wow. The girls, Lorelei McBroom, Emily Lynn, and Lara Smiles graced through their make or break moments with confidence, grace, and absolute awe.  I don’t think a single arm in that establishment was without goosebumps. Meanwhile, “Time,” complete with syncopated lasers, brought Pink Floyd’s psychedelic stage presence to the forefront, and demonstrated guitarist Steve Mack’s prowess.

Solo of the night belonged to David Fowler’s rendition of Gilmour’s most famous composition in “Comfortably Numb,” but there’s something about Mack’s atmospheric style that just sounds larger. It’s as if Mack understands Gilmour’s “less is more” attitude, focusing on precision and emotion over absolute chaos and technicality. “Time[‘s]” solo takes time — bad pun, sorry — and build, which wouldn’t work if played in Fowler’s more straightforward technique.  Fowler, you had the whole place after “Comfortably Numb” — including myself — so don’t be offended when I say Steve Mack better understands Gilmour’s playing style.

Australian Pink Floyd brought the sounds and sights of their inspiration to St. Louis on Tuesday, August 4. Although their set could benefit from, let’s say “Echoes,” the band’s performance far outweighed its lack of setlist creativity. Take away Led Zeppelin 2’s rough start and it’s easy to say Aussie Floyd put on one hell of a show.  Oh, and did I mention…

Lasers?

RATING:  4.75/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and properties of header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/music/australian-pink-floyds-roger-waters-on-the-future-of-musician-holograms-6593574. I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

Live Review: Earth, Wind and Fire/Chicago Heart and Soul Tour 2015

St. Louis got plenty of soul, heart, and shattered ear drums from Earth, Wind & Fire/Chicago’s August 31 performance at the Maryland Heights Hollywood Casino Amphitheater.

There’s a feeling, a goal, all music listeners, or might I say appreciators, reach for when listening to a musical performance.  Some go for a good time of easy listening, others to get drunk and lose themselves to whatever debauchery that might unfold. I go to concerts — and listen to music in general — for the off chance that the performer will either:

1.  Give me goosebumps.

2.  Force me to jump up and actually participate.  *Those that know me know this is more important.

Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago’s Heart and Soul Tour stop in St. Louis achieved both of these goals. EWF, in particular, brought the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater to its feet.  And, when your audience’s bed time average is 9:00, that’s saying something.  Jokes aside, since this was a co-headliner tour, I’m going to split this review into two sections.  Like hell if I’m going to bring them out together; that was a disaster in itself.

Yikes, spoiler alert!

Earth, Wind & Fire

From the get go, Ralph Johnson, Verdine White, Phillip Bailey and company brought out everything Earth, Wind & Fire were — and are currently — known for.  People came to dance.  And dance they did, grooving to hits and so on and so forth.  I could go on and on with a track by track review, but why do that when I can analyze the technical nonsense? You know, the performance itself!

Stage wise, there was a lot going on: stage screens, psychedelic/Egyptian graphics, horns, multiple drum kits.  When overused, such an abundance of showmanship threatens disenchantment; however, the flash never took away from the tracks, only heightened them.  For instance, “Reasons” commanded full attention to Bailey’s soul crushing falsetto.  With just the right touch of atmospheric stars on the jumbotrons, his high reaches — because, let’s face it, that’s what we were all waiting for — burst through with maximum impact.  Beautiful, simply beautiful.  Remember what I said about goosebumps?

Each member brought energy to the table, contrary to the following act, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  As soon as “In The Stone[‘s]” horns throttled the venue’s speakers, a spotlight shone on the silver tree that is Verdine White.  Nothing, not Chicago, not even Earth and Wind could bring attention away from Earth’s rumble.  Did I just make that up?  Either way, Verdine is one of the more underrated bassists out there.  Sure, he’s not the most versatile or virtuostic soloist, but hits “September,” “Boogie Wonderland,” and most definitely, “Fantasy” would sound like Eagle’s outtakes without White’s defining groove.  There was enough synchronized spinning, dancing, horn blares, harmonies, and sequins to please even the dullest eye.  Shit, that was probably me.

Fun.  That’s how I will define Earth, Wind & Fire’s set.  By the time “Let’s Groove” thumped along, the whole amphitheater was on its feet.  I haven’t seen that much excitement at that venue since…well, Iron Maiden.  Okay, gotta move on!

Chicago

And then…there was Chicago. I enjoy the occasional “25 or 6 to 4,” whatever the hell that means, and “Saturday In the Park” every once in a while.  However, I can only get enough of the horn gimmick before I start to roll my eyes.  And Lord, did Chicago jam their horns down the audience’s throat. Damn, and they played their “inspiration” love songs? Double damn!  Trombonist, James Pankow was pretty freakin’ awesome, though.  I mean, who doesn’t want to see a trombonist center stage, ripping away like a lead guitarist? If any of EWF’s energy translated into Chicago’s set, Pankow delivered through his sways, fist pumps, and general fun loving stage presence. Chicago sat comfortably in their hit catalog, performing a wide array of balladry and face slapping rock anthems, while firmly holding a more intimate, less showy atmosphere.  In this regard, the band brought full attention to their music, creating room for improvisation and complexity to their already complex repertoire.  They even displayed a heavier sound, courtesy of guitarist Keith Howland.

Yet, it is in this heavier sound that I was left wondering if Chicago’s creative drive reached a crossroads.  I hate to single out anyone, but Keith Howland’s shreddery and abrasiveness made absolutely no musical sense whatsoever.  Why? Why noodle away to “You’re the Inspiration” like it’s — expletive coming! — a Van Halen fuck track? “Inspiration” is for lovemaking, not beer, cigarettes, and hotels.  Is that a song? Not to mention Howland’s sound level ascended with each track.  By the time Chicago monster, “25 or 6 to 4” started, the guitar sound reached painful levels, ultimately detracting from the overall sound because, instead of dancing, the audience members were holding their ears.  Let me put it this way.  Chicago and EWF both appeared on stage to close out the night with their most famous hits.  I could hear two things:

1. Horns

2. Howland’s Goddamn guitar

This is inexcusable when there’s 20+ performers on stage. Overall, Chicago’s strategy originally adopted a “calm before the storm” approach.  Yet, guitar led Chicago — yeah, kind of an oxymoron — brought too much storm on an already flooded audience.

Verdict

It’s pretty crazy that I can say the loudest concert I’ve been to is Chicago.  Either way, solid performances from all involved.  Although Earth, Wind & Fire commanded the evening, Chicago provided enough musical exploration — kudos, drum and percussion soloists! — to keep the audience’s interest peeked for the encore.  Hell, I’ll admit it.  The horns were pretty cool afterall.

Okay, I can’t help asking again.  Who shreds to Chicago songs? I’m making this a written rule.  Unless it’s “25 or 6 to 4” you just don’t shred to Chicago songs.

EARTH, WIND & FIRE RATING: 5/5

CHICAGO RATING: 2.5/5

OVERALL:  3.5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and properties of header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://banksartscentre.com/event/chicago-the-band-earth-wind-fire/.  All rights, content, and properties of body image 1 belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/whats-on/music-nightlife-news/earth-wind-fire-liverpool-arena-7214417.  All rights, content, and properties of body image 2 belong to its owner.  Image found at http://music.newcity.com/2011/08/23/old-days-the-band-chicago-returns-to-ravinia-properly-matured/. I have, in no way, used said images for profit.

Review: Symphony X – Underworld

With their latest LP, Underworld, Symphony X taps into their neoclassical roots to create one of the more entertaining listens of 2015.

Yep, I’m doing a 180 here. When a band does what they do best, it’s hard not to appreciate their effort.  Because, let’s face it, Symphony X lays it all down on their latest studio album, combining past and present influence into one of their more consistent records.

Now, before you get all “Make up your damn mind!” on me, know that this is a record burdened by familiarity, pushing more of an Iconoclast sound over, say, their coined The Divine Wings of Tragedy’s Gregorian, neoclassical epic approach. However, where Iconoclast felt pointlessly heavy, Underworld amplifies that heaviness, all the while grounding listeners with the complex, beautiful, and might I say “cleaner” songwriting of their past.  There’s reason to Romeo, Allen, Pinnella, and Rullo’s style again. This is a testament to Romeo’s obsession with Christian mythology.  Look at it this way, when a prog metal album’s concept is loosely based on Dante’s Inferno, how can you not make the material heavy as shit?

“Underworld,” with its punchy, galloping chorus, accented by Russel Allen’s binary vocal style, complements this sound realization, reminiscent to Paradise Lost’s symphonic numbers.   Now, with that in mind, you won’t get anything new on this album.  That’s where this album suffers most.  Underworld feels more like a continuation of Symphony X’s newfound appreciation for metaldom, rather than a musical progression.  At this point, you must ask:  What else do these guys have to prove?  They rode Dream Theater’s wake, producing an organic combination of power, prog, and neoclassical metal, then darkened the progressive genre further, incorporating harsher vocals, blast beats, and heavier riffs.   And, hell, the blast beats in “Underworld” will most definitely take the casual prog listener out of the equation. But, to say Underworld is uninspired is an insult to the band’s legacy and meticulous effort to separate itself from dreaded Dream Theater imitation.

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Credit: Blabbermouth

Does the album feel Nuclear Blast-esque?  Metal heads will understand that statement.  The LP, as feared, suffers from the band’s overwhelming metal obsession,  “Without You,” condemned as more of a sellout, derivative “Paradise Lost” clone, contains some of Russell Allen’s most passionate vocals.  So, power prog Symphony X fans listen up.  The clean voice has returned! That’s enough to give Underworld a star in itself.

“Without You,” brings back the band’s classical influence to the forefront, replacing complexity with good ol’ fashioned emotional songwriting.  Same with “To Hell and Back.” The track’s introduction adds atmosphere to the LP, then leads to guitar, vocal, and rhythm excellence, courtesy to each band member’s famous precision.  Again, “To Hell and Back,” is more of a listenable track — oh God, not melody! Melody doesn’t belong in metal! — but the band was known for melody, never brutality. “Swan Song,” continues this trek into melodic territory, alluding to “The Accolade.”  Atmospheric, complex, melodic, beautiful, heavy in an ideological sense, rather than in a “smash your face” sense. That’s something I thought I would never hear after Iconoclast.

*On a side note, has anyone ever wondered how chaotic it is when someone asks for Michael in the band?

Meanwhile, Romeo, with his blistering fretboard control, continues to wow listeners in tracks like “Nevermore” and “Charon.” Now, I’m on the fence with these two tracks.  Remember that little “Nevermore” single review that Reviews From the Other Side composed a month or so ago?  Obviously, Symphony X wanted to continue their “guitar first” philosophy, sacrificing chorus and general appeal in the process.  This leads to disenchantment from the source material.  I appreciate a kick ass guitar performance, but when everything around that guitar performance is, well, for lack of a better word, boring, then it’s easy to forget said tracks. Disenchantment and boredom is the bane to progressive metal. Even as a fan, I can admit that. Michael Romeo and Michael Pinnella tend to noodle, it’s a known fact!  “Nevermore” is a studio single, for crying out loud! For an album that promises a collage of influences, “Nevermore” fails in that the track sounds like nothing more than a Iconoclast bonus track.  That’s what is so frustrating with this album.  It tries to move past the heaviness of Paradise Lost and Iconoclast, but for every melodic, neoclassical passage, there’s ten overwhelming, “What the fuck? Should I bang my head or air guitar?” metal wanks.

It’s in these metal passages, however, that the band’s rhythm section pulls through. Michael Romeo and Russell Allen are awesome! Who in metaldom doesn’t know that? Pinnella is a little too Rudess for me, but does his part nonetheless.  Hell, the guy even has a couple credits to his name, so kudos, good key meister. In previous recordings — especially their rendition of The Odyssey — Jason Rullo’s drums came across as flat, even mediocre at times, but Underworld brings the best out of our little mountain mover.  It’s an understatement to say Rullo was made for explosive passages, complemented by Michael Lepond’s, as-always, moving rumble.

Symphony X, with their 11th studio album, Underworld, force listeners to gaze into the looking glass of their discography, exploring their descent from neoclassical, power prog to straight forward, kick ass metal. Fans, indulge. Casual listeners, think of this album as a focused, greatest hits record.

Credit:  Skullsnbones

Credit: Skullsnbones

P.S. That album art…

Ugh.

RATING:  4/5

All rights, content, and properties of header image belong to its owner.  Image found at https://fanart.tv/artist/b669c53e-5a1f-4adc-80be-755e64e8115e/symphony-x/.  All rights, content, and properties of body image one belongs to its owner. Image found at http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/symphony-xs-michael-romeo-says-underworld-album-has-a-little-bit-of-everything/.  All rights, content, and properties of body image two belongs to its owner. Image found http://skullsnbones.com/symphony-x-is-releasing-underworld-in-july/.  I have, in no way, used said images for profit.

Live Review: Steely Dan – Rockabye Gollie Angel Tour 2015

Steely Dan brought their trademark groove to the Hollywood Casino Amphitheater, complete with an impressive setlist and phenomenal backing cast.

I don’t know how many times I had to explain jazz fusion this week. It’s simple:  jazz fused with other genres, usually rock, or metal.  You’d be surprised with the scope of bands utilizing such a musical approach, sometimes subtly, other times throwing the in-itself mega genre right at listener’s faces.  Steely Dan, minus “Reelin’ in the Years” (more on that, in a minute) falls into the latter category, but don’t let that alter your perception just yet.  What separates Steely Dan and their ensemble of horns, guitars, singers, and cute, little, trumpet keyboards from bands like prog juggernaut, King Crimson, is groove.  These guys had it.  These guys still have it. And, boy, let me tell you, St. Louis felt Steely Dan’s groove on Wednesday, July 27.

I’ll admit it, I was a little on edge going into this venue.  Hollywood Casino Amphitheater — locally termed “shitty parking, shitty odors, shitty bugs,” among the locals — has reputedly poor sound production.  This was evident through Elvis Costello’s set.  Just look at his setup.

WP_20150722_001

As a neutral Costello listener already, the aging hipster-Dylan failed to catch my attention.  Musically, the band explored many interesting topics and instrumentals, but between the sound quality and generally poor vocal performance, there was an air of discomfort surrounding the venue.  And not the, “The people here are going crazy,” kind of discomfort.  Yikes, did I mention the sound was bad? I know it’s an honor to follow a musical inspiration, but Costello and The Imposters fell victim to the dreaded opening sound guy, complete with inaudible guitars, overzealous vocal volume.  And let’s be honest here, that was a mistake in itself.  Such a talented and respected musician deserves more. Reviews From the Other Side, unfortunately, can not justify the hype.

That’s enough complaining.  Steely Dan practically jumped on the stage, and given both their age and the venue’s reputation, it was hard not to be inherently impressed.  The lights were unimpressive, but who attends a jazz fusion show for the effects and fireworks?  No, this is a musically complex outfit.  As pretentious as this sounds, to understand Steely Dan, listeners need to focus on the intricacies, crescendos, and transitions of Fagen and Becker’s expansive back catalog.  Steely Dan is, in no way, a “smoke a joint, drink a twelve pack, and go crazy” kind of band.  As Becker would probably put it, they’re a “glass of wine and have makeup sex” kind of experience. Lights and effects would detract from that experience.  So, how’s that for practical argument?

I’m getting the scowl, better move on.

Steely Dan opened with two seminal numbers, “Black Cow,” and evening highlight, “Aja.”  Immediately, the amphitheater adopted a nightclub atmosphere, the horns and general setup somewhat resembling a big band rig, Fagen sulking to the right, Becker smoothing away to the left.  Smooth.  If the band could be summed in one word, it would be smooth.  “Black Cow,” with its  groovy rhythm and heavy accents, moved the audience, not exactly pulling limbs from seats, but making heads sway involuntarily.  When attention is brought on a performance with such minimal provocation, it’s a magical feeling to witness.

Then, the opening melody of “Aja” struck the audience’s nerve.  Goosebumps all around.  The instrumental following Fagen’s suspenseful verse-chorus was the highlight of the night, assaulting listeners with images of China and uncertainty. When stripped to its core, the driving force behind Fagen’s key-trumpet and Becker’s guitar is their newfound drummer’s graceful attack.  Becker himself labeled him as “The best drummer of his generation.” And besides Young Guy, I couldn’t, for the love of God, remember the guy’s name.  However, the drum solo interludes — you know, the parts where everything goes crazy for a mint — were absolutely jawdropping, not to mention the lighting guy realized he had to wake up.  All around, the instrumental highlighted each member’s repertoire.  I could spend this whole piece discussing “Aja,” but that wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the band’s set.

Transitions. I’ll always think of Steely Dan as the masters of transition.  See what I did there?  The jazz genre explores multiple avenues and various emotions throughout its millions of creations.  To make these sections, improvisations, and mood shifts work, transitions must flow seamlessly, without risking disillusionment from the listener.  Awkwardness is a jazz piece’s downfall.  Pretty much all of Aja, “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Black Friday,” “Babylon Sisters,” hell, their whole damn setlist employed perfectly executed transitions.  Even the band’s setlist moved between tracks flawlessly. When taking in the scope of Steely Dan’s 19 performances — don’t forget the improvisations — it’s hard not to fall asleep.  Yet, musicianship and transition kept the audience’s interest.  Because they’re smooth, damnit!

My only complaint is Donald Fagen’s voice.  Again, perhaps a mixing or health issue — you have to take a vocalist’s excuse with a grain of salt — but Fagen commonly adopted the vocalist, pull-away-during high-notes-to-feign-passion, trope throughout his performances.  Sure, age is a bitch and touring wears out the vocal chords.  However, amplifying the band’s background singers to mask Fagen’s struggles served as more of a distraction than if the guy actually attempted some of his more difficult lines. Either way, the overall, instrumental performance far outweighed Fagen’s minor, vocal wear and tear.  You get off this time, Fagen!

Believe me, that sounded cooler out loud.

Steely Dan proved once again the impact and importance of the jazz fusion movement during their Rockabye Gollie Angel Tour stop in St. Louis.  The parking, bugs, and strange odors were worth it after all.  Great show, through and through.

RATING: 4.5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, property, and content of the header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://thekey.xpn.org/2015/02/12/steely-dan-elvis-costello-playing-susquehanna-bank-center-august-3rd/.  All rights, property, and content of body image 2 belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.daytoncitypaper.com/dukes-of-september/. I have, in no way, used said images for profit.