Blackstar: A David Bowie Tribute and Review

Look up here, I’m in heaven/I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

— David Bowie, “Lazarus,” Blackstar (2016)

I’ve been putting this off for a bit — That’s if, of course, you consider a month under the definition of, “a bit.” I honestly felt that David Bowie’s swansong, and final effort, Blackstar, deserved some time to grow, to escape the swelling press and nonsense attributed to a famed celebrity’s passing.  The Blackstar review needed to be objective.  The review needed to feel sincere.  My love for Bowie’s music and his various personas would’ve clouded the discussion and led to a completely biased post.  What else could you expect when one of your personal artistic influences dies the day after you purchase his last album?

Initial Reaction

After listening to Blackstar multiple times, and watching the “spectacle” of Lady Gaga’s Grammy tribute, I can safely say this is one of the Thin White Duke’s finest achievements, a record pulling from the melancholy of the Berlin trilogy and jazzing it up.  Yeah, yeah, bias be damned.

For projecting such a flamboyant stage presence, Bowie seemed to operate behind the camera’s eye.  Nobody, not even hailed producer and Berlin trilogy creative consultant, Brian Eno — whom Ziggy was scheduled to work with on a future project — knew how short the artist’s time was. Yet, Blackstar was recorded.  Blackstar dropped.

d4e98803-d643-4892-923b-24e898b83e47_blackstar

Credit:  globo.com

The record delves deep in symbolism, from the star pieces in the cover spelling out Bowie, to the cryptic lyrics throughout its seven tracks.  This highlights the artistic realization of the musician, the finality of the moment.  So, does it all mean something?  Or, am I just bullshitting away for the sake of word count?  You tell me:

In the villa of Ormen, in the villa of Ormen/Stands a solitary candle, ah-ah, ah-ah/In the centre of it all, in the centre of it all/Your eyes

— David Bowie, “Blackstar,” Blackstar

Immediately, Bowie adds an occult, dark tone to a career smothered in glamour, drugs, sex, and good ol’ rock n’ roll.  The twelve personas stare into the flame and capture that feeling of hopeful isolation.  As the record rolls on to, “Lazarus,” and then closes with, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” the message is simple and powerful, punctuated by the hopeless notes of a saxophone.  Bowie has said his goodbye to the the music world in the only suitable way.

An Influence

Bowie was a legend on the sheets of stardom.  He didn’t give a damn whether the mainstream market approved of his disco number or his funk experiment.  He certainly didn’t care if the masses disapproved of his support for minority musician airplay on national media. How many guys can enter the film world as Crotch and Big Hair — I mean, Labyrinth’s, the Goblin King, of course — and then, a few years later, jump on stage with Trent Reznor and seep venom into the crowd with Nine Inch Nails’ industrial rattle, “Reptile.”

Yet, through all of the collaborations, all of the media appearances, Bowie seemed to desire privacy in his personal life.  That’s why, on January 10, 2016, the music industry faced shock and reflection on just how much The Man Who Fell Down to Earth influenced the way music was composed, performed, recorded, and understood.

Bowie singlehandedly pioneered glam rock with Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.  He brought experimentation to the mainstream, starting with the blues/soul/pop sensibilities of Station to Station and ending with the listener friendly, but serene, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps).   Bowie continued this musical freedom into the eighties, where Let’s Dance and other do-whatever-the-fuck-Bowie-wants records came to fruition.  Let’s not even mention the amount of singles and classic tracks he pumped out;  “Under Pressure,” anyone? He was a fan of music as much as he was a creator, a trait evident in his — deceivingly random — performances with other musicians.

Basically, if Kanye West cites you as an influence, you know you broke some ground.

*Mic drop.

Pshhhh, I’m not going to end Bowie’s influence on a Kanye tweet.  That’s the last thing I want to do.  Either way, David Bowie’s stage presence itself brought theatrics into rock n’ roll, a flamboyant expression inspiring thousands to pick up the guitar, throw on — to mom and dad’s disappointment — a kimono and belt out some, “Wam, bam, thank you, ma’am!”

Bowie was a rock star who, quite simply, did not give a single fuck what the industry pushed or pulled. He performed and inspired artists to pursue what they wanted, rather than cater to the needs of a third party.  Of course, this led to fandom chaos, but, fortunately, each Bowie persona was met with embrace rather than alienation.  By the peak of his career, the Bowie brand was defined by the eccentricities and flamboyance of Ziggy Stardust.

Bringing it Down

So, it is no surprise that, in this perspective, Blackstar brings a different light to Bowie’s discography, one of sincere sadness, reflection, and longing.  Please forgive the pretentious pun. Anyways, take the pairing of the haunting, marching rhythm of, “Girl Loves Me,” and the somber, “Dollar Days.” Both tracks highlight this dark atmosphere, as well as push the boundaries of the musician’s instrumental focus.

As I previously said, Bowie was no enemy of collaboration.  However, instead of bringing in A-list or aged names, the album welcomes the talent of prominent jazz musicians.  This is not a typical solo artist, half assed vocal performance, where session musicians take a back seat to the ego of their employer.  Blackstar often leans on its studio musicians, especially in the umph of the title track and, “Girl Loves Me.”  The LP’s rhythm section, courtesy of drummer, Mark Guiliana, and Tim Lefebvre, balance complexity with rhythmic freedom; noticeable, but not distracting.  Their chemistry and poise develop Blackstar into a lesson on tasteful, musical freedom.  That’s hard to find in a record emphasizing a jazzy style.  The record also features a career performance by saxophonist, Donny McCaslin, whose horns bring out, “Lazarus’,” heavy subject matter, making tears nearly inevitable.

Vocally, Bowie doesn’t even sound like he’s aged.  There are moments where his voice adopts a rasp, but that only heightens the overall feel; that of a tired man facing the reality of his situation.  Sure, his voice is not quite at the quality level of, “Under Pressure,” or, “Heroes,” but there is no denying the emotion transmitted through tracks like the title piece and, “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

A Final Look

Overall, Blackstar brings the audience to the darker, experimental side of David Bowie.  In his final record, he pulls ears in with explorations in jazz form, dark atmosphere, and cryptic lyrics, often alluding to past treasures in the likes of the Berlin Trilogy and his quintessential 70’s classics.  A beautiful transition from the idol to the human, Blackstar serves as both a celebration and ode to the life of a musician, that of excess, fear, longing, and fulfillment.  Whichever Bowie felt in his final moment, we’ll never know.

We love you, David Bowie.  You will be missed.  Rest in peace.

ALBUM RATING:  5/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, content, and property of the header image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/11/entertainment/david-bowie-death/.   All rights, content, and property of the body image belong to its owner.  Image found at http://g1.globo.com/musica/blog/antonio-carlos-miguel/post/blackstar-de-david-bowie-geraldo-vandre.html.  I have, in no way, used said images for profit or personal gain.

 

Review: Baroness – Purple

Does a trip into Floydian atmospheres save Baroness on their fouth LP release, Purple?  Not by much.

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t really gotten into Baroness. I know that they have some freaking awesome album covers, all thanks to frontman, John Baizley, and their sound is placed deep in the stoner metal/sludge metal corner of metaldom.  Let’s say, Mastodon with a decent vocalist — well, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  Baroness is a gateway band, a collection of everything that makes sludge/stoner music the delightfully muddy noise that it is.  However, Baroness enjoys throwing in a little atmosphere, here and there, and their latest album, Purple, brings this experiment to the forefront.

The latest primary color record is exactly what it sets out to be:  a combination of Blue[‘s] experimentation and Red[‘s] crunch.  It is clear, straight off, that the band decided to take a mainstream approach to songwriting, in that the structures are simple and melodic, but thick with metal textures.  Now, for the love ov God, don’t let that dreaded word, melodic, soil your skirt.  For the most part, this shit is lyrically and musically heavy. By throwing down hard rockers, such as, “Try to Disappear,” and adding beautiful, production-heavy flavors in the likes of, “Chlorine and Wine,” Baroness found their formula, not quite progressing or adding anything new, but merging the pieces found across their four LP discography into a sound summary.

Album singles, “Shock Me,” and “Chlorine and Wine,” have enough melody and technicality to keep the listener interested and show the bands’ musical maturity.  However, outside the more melodic, mass appealing tracks, we are served a helping of generic stoner rock/metal musings.  Take album opener, “Morningstar,” for example.  The track throws down some nice, sludgy riffs, but a lackluster, attempt for melody in the chorus throws the fan, and casual listener, off immediately.  Not a good way to start the album.

The entire album, unfortunately, suffers in this lack of engagement.  It’s nice.  It’s heavy.  It sounds pretty. But, have I wanted to go back for repeated listens? Not so much.  And, in the world of music reviews, this is the final nail in the coffin. Maybe my vision is obscured by Neurosis, Kyuss, Mastodon, and Melvins.  Maybe I’m turning into that typical, pretentious asshole again; who knows? Purple does little to add to the territory paved by their forebears, and that seems to be the overlying issue with the stoner subgenre.  It’s becoming too laid back.  See what I did there?

That said, the album’s production and technical value is top notch.  It’s clear to the listener that Baizley and co. understand the sound board and they create beautiful, atmospheric layers that touch a variety of emotions.  Again, I go to “Chlorine and Wine.”  By production alone, the track transcends beyond mere sludge and brings out the collective talent of the band members.   Just listen to the gorgeous intro and Devin Townsend-esque wall of sound in the track’s conclusion and you’ll see what I mean. The album’s mix also deserves attention.  Each instrument is crystal clear, the guitars and drums placed at the forefront to continue that in-your-face technique.

Baroness’ fourth LP is a trip into bittersweet sludge.  I want to like it, I really do, but the band deserves something more than a squeaky, polished edition of past explorations.  Oh, and please feel free to check out Baizley’s artwork.  It will really tie your room together.

RATING:  3/5

All rights, property, and content of the featured image belong to its owner.  Featured image found at http://www.tunescope.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Baroness-Purple-Announcement.jpg.  I have, in no way, used said image for profit or personal gain.

 

 

Review: Ghost – Meliora

Tobias Forge — ahem, Papa Emeritus III — and his band of ghouls continue their metal deception and push humanity further and further into darkness with their third LP, Meliora.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and appreciate that album art…

Done? Okay, let’s go!

Ghost’s evolution is one of the more interesting stories in the music scene.  These guys hit the market hard, pumping out “Satanic” heavy rock with a little gimmick attached.  Whether the band’s anonymity or music has more weight in their popularity is up to the listener.  Either way, the showmanship would ultimately falter at some point, but Ghost keeps coming back with hard hitting, catchy, fun material.  I will even go as far to say they will be the next big thing in rock, even with the whole Satan nonsense.

The key to this success is their listener friendly approach to metal.  I say “listener friendly” because melody, harmony, and 70’s style vocals are not exactly by-the-books metal fashion.  Their debut, Opus Eponymous, boasted the band’s heavier side, while still holding onto Blue Oyster Cult-isms like “Ritual” and “Elizabeth.”  Then, their sophomore performance, Infestissumam, added symphonic, poppy elements for wider appeal.  It worked.  And, their fan base grew.  You and I both know metal bands who broaden their sound are not exactly “praised” in the metal community.  Yet, as I said, it worked. Ghost’s 2015 release, Meliora, combines these styles into their strongest effort yet, a complete, fun, consistent compilation of Satanic pop metal.  If that’s not an oxymoron, I don’t know what is.

We open with Spirit,” an anthem that does well to introduce the style and overarching concept of the band.  I’ve noticed, throughout Ghost’s discography, a Nietzschen concept of Godlessness, not purely Satanic as critics are so quick to point out.  Of course, their message and lyrical landscapes are overwhelmingly Satanic, but within all the showy, creepiness lies a conceptual progression.  Ghost’s overarching message lays a path, progressing past Opus[‘] prophetic doom and Infestissuman[‘s] anti-Christ possession. “Spirit,” describes the world without God, utilizing choirs and symphonic elements to really drive that point home.  You won’t find any hope in this record, but by God — pun intended — will you feel pleasurably overwhelmed.

Although mostly guitar driven — check out “From the Pinnacle to the Pit” for riffage gold — the instrumentals take an early step back in favor of melodious, almost poppy verses and choruses.  Album single, “Cirice,” which is (not surprising) the album highlight, has goose bumps written all over it.  Stylistically complex, the track moves from a Sabbath-esque riff to a gorgeous chorus reflecting on the inner passion of humanity.  As usual, Papa’s vocals are hopeful, yet sinister and contribute to the unpredictable instrumentation:

Now there is nothing between us
From now our merge is eternal
Can’t you see that you’re lost?
Can’t you see that you’re lost without me?

-Ghost, Meliora, “Cirice”

The record then reaches poppy heights in the Abba ode, “He Is.”  Yes, you read that right.  Abba ode. This is probably the only love song to Satan in existence. If not for the lyrics, this track could very well stand in the U.S. charts as an allusion to the ol’ 70’s Swedish pop movement.  It’s hard not to appreciate the risk the band took with this track.  I mean, let’s face it, metalheads aren’t exactly known for accepting pop anthems from their idols.

Don’t confuse ambition with dumbed down songwriting, however, because Meliora does not lack for heaviness.  “Majesty,” “Absolution,” and “From the Pinnacle to the Pit,” each feature enough driving riffs and general badassery to make even the most skeptical headbanger nod their head.  What separates Meliora’s songwriting from the band’s preceding performances is consistent variety.  Each track can stand on its own, but meld together to give the album a distinct identity.

Meliora is the product of an experienced outfit.  From the mature experimentation to the surprisingly catchy songwriting, Ghost continues their dominance over the metal industry.  I think it’s safe to say this is an Album of the Year contender.

RATING:  4.75/5

Disclaimer:  All rights, properties, and content of the header image belongs to its owner.  Image found at http://fotonin.com/data_images/out/10/833027-immortal-wallpaper.jpg.  I have, in no way, used said image for profit.

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.

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

Disclaimer:  All rights, property, and content of header image belongs to the artist.  Image found at http://www.ironmaiden.com/thebookofsouls/img/og.jpg.  All rights, property, and content of body image 1 belong to the artist.  Image found at http://i3.mirror.co.uk/incoming/article5190628.ece/ALTERNATES/s615/Bruce-Dickinson.jpg. All rights, property, and content of body image 2 belong to the artist.  Image found at http://www.coverdude.com/covers/iron-maiden-the-book-of-souls-2015-cd2-cover-215640.jpg.  I have, in no way, used said images 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.

symphonyxwithoutsingle

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.