Friday, November 14, 2014

Going 'Inside' Annandale's latest release

Knoxville rockers Annandale, fronted by husband and wife team Chad and Ashley Grennor, have released their second EP, On the Inside. It is the follow up to 2013's Moving Forward, which was produced in Butler, New Jersey by Sevendust's Clint Lowery at Architekt Studios. On the Inside, however, was produced in the band's hometown at Lakeside Studios by local award-winning music producer Travis Wyrick.

Since the release of Moving Forward, Annandale has rounded out their permanent lineup with lead guitarist Zack Burnette and bassist Jody Jordan. Two session drummers played on On the Inside, Andy Campbell and Chris Robbins. They now also have new drummer, Dave Rush, who did not play on the album but is a permanent addition to the band.

On the Inside begins with its lead single "Perfect Disaster." It is a hard and heavy rocker with some killer guitar riffs. The vocals are a duet between Ashley and Chad, and  Ashley's vocals very bright and theatrical, particularly on this track. It also features great lyrics about about being with someone who is "perfectly imperfect," but you wouldn't have it any other way.

"Ugly" is another hard rocker with fast, heavy riffs. On this one, Ashley's singing is prominent in the verses, and Chad's are in the chorus. He sings the lyrics, "Because if I'm gonna be beautiful, I can't be afraid to let it get ugly" so powerfully. "Ugly" is my absolute favorite on On the Inside, and I know it has the potential to be a hit single. As a matter of fact, it is going to be Annandale's next single!

"Half Past Halfway" is a ballad, but it is still quite edgy, as Chad sings it with such conviction and soul. Ashley, not being left out of this one, sings backing vocals in the chorus. "Half Past Halfway" has thoughtful lyrics about not wanting to push someone away. It is followed by "Wake Up," which has some electronic effects in the intro, but it quickly turns into a guitar-oriented rocker. I really enjoy the distorted "Wake up, wake up" that Ashley sings in the chorus. It also has a great guitar solo at the end.

On the Inside's final track is "Unbecoming." It is slow in the beginning, and contains a pronounced bass line courtesy of Jody Jordan. The chorus on this one is solid, and Ashley's and Chad's voices blend together so well. It is dramatic and emotional with its lyrics about a relationship being strong and unbreakable after going through an ordeal. "Unbecoming" is not your typical hard and heavy song with the soaring riffs and the like, but it certainly packs a punch.

Annandale's On the Inside boasts an overall great sound, and some heavy riffs courtesy of lead guitarist Zack Burnette which are well complemented by Chad Grennor's rhythm guitar. Ashley's and Chad's voices intertwine beautifully, but at the same time you can sense tension as they sing deep lyrics alluding to a tumultuous relationship. I really like this aspect of Annandale's lyrics and sound. With Chad and Ashley being husband and wife, I'm sure this can be therapeutic for them at times.

Annadale is a band that is gaining momentum and headed in the right direction with On the Inside. They have certainly topped their previous album Moving Forward, which was in itself a fantastic album. I am excited to hear whatever comes next, as I'm sure it will be outstanding.

7 1/2 out of 10 stars

Independent Release

Audrey Horne continue their retro rock journey with latest offering

After honing in on their sound with 2013's Youngblood, Norwegian band Audrey Horne has released a new album in the same vintage vein, Pure Heavy. While guitarist Ice Dale has his roots with the black metal band Enslaved and guitarist Thomas Tofthagen has played in the doom metal band Sahg, the members of Audrey Horne have come together to create a completely different sound with a classic rock and New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) origin.

Pure Heavy introduces itself with the track "Wolf in My Heart". The guitar riffs, the rhythm, and even frontman Toschie's vocals really sound inspired by The Who. Underlying heavier rock riffs give this song some metal overtones.

The lead single from Pure Heavy, "Out of the City", will instantly remind listeners of Thin Lizzy. It has a defined '70s rock feel, and the bass line screams Phil Lynott. This sound comes quite organically from Audrey Horne. It doesn't sound at all like they're trying too hard to sound like Thin Lizzy. This song about leaving town--something a lot of us dream of someday doing--has a sing-along chorus of, "Oh I know, oh I know, oh I know, we're getting out of the city!" "Out of the City" is accompanied by a fun video, in which Johan Hegg of Amon Amarth makes an appearance. It also has puppets, because what's more metal than puppets?

"Into the Wild" seems to have a ton of Mötley Crüe influence--Espen Lien's drumming and cowbell, the guitar riffs, and the rhythm. The vocals, however, are a bit more on the Van Halen/David Lee Roth end of things. If you like the Crüe's "Live Wire", you'll love this song.

The rest of the songs from Pure Heavy fit into what I like to call a "NWOBHM-meets-KISS" sound. "Holy Roller" exemplifies this. It has some great heavy riffs, and it is catchy, especially when "Holy roller!" is sung in the chorus. It also has this subtle pinball or alarm type sound that is in the background. It's one of those things that will kind of catch you off guard when you're listening to the song and driving or something. "Holy Roller" is one of tracks that stand out on the album for sure.

"Volcano Girl" goes along with this sound, and I absolutely love Kjetil Greve's heavy bass playing on this one. It has a driving rhythm and a great NWOBHM style guitar solo. The "wooooaaaah" in the backing vocals is a lot of fun. "High and Dry" (no relation to the Def Leppard song) has some great Iron Maiden-esque guitar riffs, and it also goes along with the NWOBHM trend.

Pure Heavy ends with the track "Boy Wonder". It fits with the classic metal style, but it is a bit darker, weighty, and looming.

Audrey Horne's Pure Heavy is fantastic all around. It has several stand-out tracks, particularly the ones at the top of the album.

I thoroughly enjoyed last year's Youngblood, and Audrey Horne has stayed with me ever since. While I still think the individual songs from Youngblood stuck with me more and grabbed me a bit sooner than this batch did, I find that these songs really grow on you after a few listens. For anyone who is into '70s and '80s-era classic rock and metal, Audrey Horne is a band you should be watching, and Pure Heavy is a must have for your album collection.

7 out of 10 stars

Napalm Records/Rocket Distribution
Official Audrey Horne Website

English rockers put a unique spin on doom metal

Birmingham's Alunah calls their sound doom psychedelic. According to their Facebook page, they are influenced by "Black Sabbath, nature, myth, and magic." With their third release Awakening the Forest, this description is spot on. The feminine vocals of singer/guitarist Soph Day also set Alunah's sound apart from most other doom metal bands.

Awakening the Forest rouses with "Bricket Wood Coven". The intro riffs are fuzzy, distorted, and filled with feedback. The bass is super thick, and the slow flow of the song fits well with the repeated lyric "there was a lady..." that starts each verse. The guitar solo is nice and bluesy, but at 8:39, the song kind of drags. The overall sound is great, however, and you can really hear the Sabbath inspiration. "Bricket Wood Coven" tells the story of a village in England known for some early Wiccan activity that was instrumental in advancing Wicca as a modern religion.

The album's title track, "Awakening the Forest", has a similar sound, but it seems less draggy. It is quite memorable when the title is sung in the chorus, and the lyrics fit with the nature and mythical themes the band adheres to. "Scourge and the Kiss" is also very doom-oriented, and it has features what is Dan Burchmore's thickest and heaviest bass lines on Awakening the Forest." "The Mask of Heme" is a bit slower, and Soph's vocals more melodic.

"Heavy Bough" is Awakening the Forest's lead single, and it breaks away from the typical doom psychedelic mold. It has some fantastic classic metal guitar riffs that stand out among the doom metal riffs. The catchy, almost upbeat chorus of, "sitting on the mossy stone / carving hearts into the bone," is sexy and oozing with attitude. This is my favourite track from the album. I would call it "doom metal plus."

Bonus track "The Summerland" is slow and melodic. It is dark, but doesn't have that doom metal thickness for most of the song. It does get heavy toward the end, and I was highly impressed by the guitar solo in the middle.

Don't let the fact that Awakening the Forest only has six tracks fool you. This is not an EP. With the average song being eight minutes long, it is certainly a full-length studio album. While the album does have some moments where the songs feel long and drawn out, Alunah's overall sound makes up for it. I am certainly a fan of Soph Day's vocal style and no-nonsense approach. She and her guitar counterpart, Dave Day, complement each other well to create Alunah's unique psychedelic doom metal sound.

6 1/2 out of 10 stars

Napalm Records/Rocket Distribution
Official Alunah Website

A new band and a new sound rise from the ashes of As I Lay Dying

Wovenwar may be a new band, but its members are certainly not newcomers to the metal scene. They are the band made up of the former members of As I Lay Dying, which is on an indefinite hiatus. Shane Blay of the metalcore band Oh, Sleeper has taken on vocal duties, but Wovenwar, with their self-titled debut album, is anything but metalcore. This new band has much more straightforward approach to metal, and their sound will definitely be more appealing to a wider audience.

Wovenwar begins with "Foreword", an electronic intro that is heavy on the keyboard and drums. It is an instrumental with some muffled, indecipherable vocals at the end. "Foreward" isn't too indicative of the sound that is to come from the rest of the album, but I could imagine it playing as the band takes the stage for a live show.

"Foreword" goes straight into the hard hitting "All Rise", which is Wovenwar's debut single. This track has great intro riffs from guitarists Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso. It has a driving, militant rhythm, and the chorus of "You have the chance to rise again" is memorable and powerful.

Wovenwar is filled with many more heavy rockers. "Death to Rights" is very heavy, especially with Josh Gilbert's bass and Jordan Mancino's drumming. It has a killer guitar solo, albiet a short one. It has a classic metal feel to it. "Moving Up" is another stand-out track. It has a catchy melody right from the start, and it has the potential to be a hit single. It has this cool underlying "chugging" riff, and the lyrics, "The version of our time / the way I kept you down / and how moving on is moving up" really stick with you. "Sight of Shore" is another good modern metal track with great lyrics about being consumed by the desire for vengeance. "Matter of Time," with its Slayer-inspired intro riffs is an intense song with an aggressive rhythm.

A few songs break this pattern, however. "Father/Son" slows things down. It is mostly acoustic, with a prominent steady beat. Shane Blay's vocals are ultra melodic on this one. It is atmospheric and has some electronic effects, building up to a heaviness toward the end. "Father/Son" is totally different from any of the other tracks, almost like an alt rock crossover. Similarly, "Prophets" features an acoustic intro and melodic vocals, but it later becomes much more forceful. The lyrical theme of "It's always the loudest who voice only their ignorance" is resonant and thought-provoking. "Prophets" also leads into the slow, percussive instrumental finale, "Onward".

Wovenwar is a solid effort from this new, yet veteran, band. Fans of As I Lay Dying and Oh, Sleeper will love the heavy and explosive riffs, but they may have mixed feelings on the tamed vocals. I find Shane Blay's vocals to be enjoyable and feel like they make Wovenwar more accessible to classic metal and the more conventional hard rock fans. The single "All Rise" certainly has me hooked, and I look forward to seeing Wovenwar do big things and become a name just as well know as its predecessor.

7 out of 10 stars

Metal Blade Records/Rocket Distribution
Official Wovenwar Website

Texas rockers combine metal, electronics, and much more for major label debut

San Antonio hard rock band Nothing More has four other albums and eleven years under their belt, but they are finally gaining major attention with their fifth album, the self-titled Nothing More. They have recently played several festival dates in the United States, and their single "This is the Time (Ballast)" has grown into something huge on rock radio. The band's sound is hard to define, but one can surely describe the components that come together and create something that is special.

The first few tracks from Nothing More fall into the hard-rock-meets-electronic category. "Ocean Floor" is the ethereal intro into the album's lead single "This is the Time (Ballast)." The first time I heard it--which was on the SiriusXM satellite radio channel Octane--the vocal effects somehow reminded of the Batman villain Bane. "Ocean Floor" is to be played seamlessly with "This is the Time (Ballast)". When the song hits, it is bombastic metal. The lyrics, about lettings go of a negative past because it holds us back, are cathartic. I enjoyed Jonny Hawkins' vocals on this one. They're distorted at times, but his higher range is impressive, even though he does not fit the mold of the classic metal singer.

"Christ Copyright" is another heavy rocker, just not as ethereal. The bass and drums are weighty on this one. As a matter of fact, vocalist Johnny Hawkins plays his own drum kit in addition to the band's formal drummer. This adds a lot of the heaviness to Nothing More's style. The lyrics and the title "Christ Copyright" alludes to the idea that the religious right wing tries to have a monopoly on Christianity, and morals in general. I like the sentiment. In the same vein, "Mr. MTV" offers a scathing criticism of the youth of today and their popular culture, including commercialism, fakeness, gratuitous sex, and drugs. It is also critical of technology, particular the "i" stuff. I find this rather ironic, because without technology, the band wouldn't be able to have the unique sound that they do. The intro to "Mr. MTV" is great. It is a take on Sting's infamous vocals on the Dire Straits song "Money for Nothing". The lyrics "Empty Me, empty nation, empty us of inspiration," is clever, as "empty" is the "MT" of MTV.

While the electronic accented hard rock is present throughout Nothing More, there are other songs that add contrast.

"First Punch" is definitely different from the album's previous track, with its punky alt rock feel. I enjoy the driving rhythm of it. "Here's to the Heartache" is a contemporary hard rocker. It is my favorite along with "This is the Time (Ballast)" and I could see it being another hit single for the band. It is catchy and memorable, and it has empowering lyrics about how the bad parts of our past lead us to where we are today.

"Jenny", which boasts an acoustic intro, has emotional lyrics about a troubled drug-addicted girl who put her family, particularly her mother, through hell. "Jenny" has subtle electronic effects and great vocals. This song starts out mild, but it totally rocks out in the chorus. If you've ever had a loved one who struggled with addiction or mental illness, this one will hit you right in the feels. "God Went North" is another emotional one. It features an electronic intro with distorted vocals. It is about a mother dying in a hospital, and she wants to live long enough to see her son marry. The music swells as emotions build.

Nothing More contains two instrumentals of sorts. "Gyre" is a heavily acoustic song, and the only words are from an old recording of Buddhist/comparative religious author Alan Watts. Nothing More's Facebook page lists scholars and philosophers like Watts, Carl Jung, and Eckhart Tolle as influences--rather than a bunch of musicians--so this may not be shocking once you learn a little more about the band. The album's finale "Pyre" is similar. It is longer, with ten minutes of ambient ocean waves and wind sound, and is accompanied by Alan Watts' "The Nature of Consciousness" speech.

Nothing More is certainly diverse, and their sound is hard to nail down. I could almost call them prog rock or experimental, but their songs seem to have a lot more of a definite direction than a lot of prog or experimental stuff. The songs also lack the virtuosic solos that one would find in prog metal and metal in general. If you're strictly looking for solos, Nothing More probably isn't for you. But if you're looking for unique and exciting hard rock, you'll be excited by this band. "This is the Time (Ballast)" got me interested right off the bat, and I was glad to hear more. I will be seeing Nothing more in October, and I am anxious to see how this uncommon band's sound translates to the live stage.

7.5 out of 10 stars

Eleven Seven Music
Official Nothing More Website

Fozzy's 'War' is one of inspiration, musical diversity

The Chris Jericho-fronted band Fozzy has released their sixth studio album, Do You Wanna Start a War. It comes on the heels of 2012's Sin and Bones. Do You Wanna Start a War is the band's fourth album of (almost) exclusively original material, and it is solid evidence that Fozzy is carving out their place in the hard rock world. They are diverse and adaptable, but when you hear Fozzy, you know it's them.

Produced by the band's lead guitarist, Rich "The Duke" Ward, Do You Wanna Start a War kicks off with the title track. It gets the listener excited right from the start, and it is enthusiastic and motivational with the catchy backing vocals of, "Do it right now!". "Do You Wanna Start a War" is certainly a hard rocker with great guitar riffs from The Duke and Billy Grey, and it is a great way to begin the album.

Keeping with the same enthusiasm and inspiration, "Tonight" is an emphatic track with an '80s pop metal feel. It even features guest vocals from Michael Starr of Steel Panther, and it has fun lyrics about throwing caution to the wind and having a great time, no matter what anybody else does or thinks.

"Unstoppable" has an empowering message about seeking success and relentless in the mission. It features singer Christie Cook on vocals. Chris Jericho complements her well, but Christie is definitely the one who shines here. "Unstoppable" is a heavy, yet positive, song, and it also happens to feature a phenomenal guitar solo from The Duke.

Fozzy really mixes it up, however, with the track "Lights Go Out", which also happens to be the lead single from Do You Wanna Start a War. It features many electronic elements, and the beginning is kind of "dancy." But it is also heavy, like in a Powerman 5000 sort of way. By the second half of the first verse, "Lights Go Out" becomes all out guitar-heavy metal. The lyrics are sexy, and the beat is pulsating. It's a song that really grows on you, and it is growing popular as well--it will be the theme song to this year's WWE SummerSlam event.

"One Crazed Anarchist" is another song the band has been promoting as a single of sorts. It's very heavy--with the death metal-inspired chant of "One crazed anarchist! One crazed anarchist!"--and it has some of the electronic production, but certainly not light "Light's Go Out." It boasts what is possibly the best guitar riff on the whole album, and it fits very well with the war theme of the title track.

"S.O.S." may be the most surprising song on Do You Wanna Start a War. While the band was known for doing covers of Judas Priest and Scorpions songs early in their career, it's hard to imagine Fozzy covering Abba. Fozzy's "S.O.S." is a keyboard-laden hard rocker, with a Styx-esque theatricality to it. This sad, dark song works very well getting a rock 'n' roll "upgrade."

"No Good Way" captures the Fozzy sound best of all and is my overall favourite. The chorus is catchy and memorable, the riffs explosive, and lyrics are absolutely fantastic. The "take what you want" line really stands out. The band should really consider releasing this song as a single, as this song would definitely be a hit on modern rock radio.

Do You Wanna Start a War's final track "Witchery," with its heaviness and driving rhythms from drummer Frank Fontsere and bassist Paul DiLeo, is another favourite as well. It is reminiscent of the band's All That Remains days. This one has a great guitar solo in the middle, and Paul's bass solo at the end is very strong.

Fozzy's Do You Wanna Start a War contains one great song after another. Each of the songs are unique and memorable in their own way, but they all have that distinctly recognizable Fozzy sound with the heavy riffs and melodic choruses. There is not a low moment or skip-worthy song on the whole album, and it goes above and beyond their last album Sin and Bones, which I thought would be nearly impossible. With Do You Wanna Start a War, Fozzy rose to the challenge and keep on proving they are destined for rock supremacy.

9 out of 10 stars

Century Media Records
Official Fozzy Website

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Luminoth delivers a unique blend of rock sounds from 'other worlds'

Working with Brian Vodinh of 10 Years, progressive rockers Luminoth present a broad spectrum of sound on their latest release Other Worlds & Allegories. This is their third album since forming in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2005. 

As soon as Other Worlds & Allegories takes off, Luminoth has this phenomenal ability to use contrasting musical themes and abrupt changes, all while also creating a seamless blend of rock. This band can easily go from an ethereal groove to hard and heavy at a second's notice, but it totally works for them.

Opener "77-78" begins with more of a prog rock flow, but as it moves along, it becomes more of a straightforward contemporary rock song. During the potentially anthemic chorus, it starts to remind me of Foo Fighters. An energetic track, "77-78" kicks off Other Worlds & Allegories perfectly.

"The Beam" has monotone vocals to start, but it soon becomes much more dynamic. This track is much more aggressive than the opener, and it features what is probably John Springer's heaviest bass playing. A laid back guitar solo from Jason Henry seems to break up the aggression and add even more contrast.

Adding to their diverse sound, "The Beam" is followed by the much tamer "Innocence." It is reminiscent of later Beatles works, with its artsy layers and bright guitar tones--still having a heaviness to it. For whatever reason, around the 4:40 mark, singer Adam Henry takes on a whole new sound. He has this moment where is sounds a lot like Def Leppard's Joe Elliott. (Yes, the bands are completely unrelated, but I just happen to notice these things.) Henry shows a lot of versatility on this record. He can go from relaxed to aggressive, and in the case of the song "G.T.F.O.," downright maniacal.

These songs are great, but "Paralysis" has got to be my favorite. It is absolutely a solid modern hard rock song, and Luminoth would be missing a grand opportunity if they didn't choose this one to be single sometime in the future. It boasts a great riff and a memorable chorus, but it also retains many of the band's trademark experimental and prog qualities--wrapped up in a shiny little package familiar to mainstream rock fans.

While each song from Other Worlds & Allegories is one of a kind, they all have a large and complex sound that is littered with detail. Luminoth has even recruited a new guitarist, Chad Grennor of Annandale, to re-create this heavily layered sound for live audiences.

The catchier songs--"77-78" "A Feigned Serpent," and "Paralysis" will draw fans in on first listen, but overall, this album is more intellectual and expressive than hook-ish. With its diverse sounds and blend of contemporary and progressive rock styles, I recommend Luminoth's Other Worlds & Allegories to rockers who are looking for something artistic and intelligent, yet completely accessible.

7 out of 10 stars

Independent Release

Monday, June 09, 2014

'New Southern' rockers may be young, but they already have plenty to rage about

Formed in 2008 when most of the band members were still in middle school, Oklahoma's Anti-Mortem are finally releasing their debut album--New Southern. While most of the band members are only about 21 years old now, they have the talent and perspective of bands twice their age. They were even able to recruit producer Bob Marlette, who is best known for working with rock legends Alice Cooper (Brutal Planet, Dragontown) and Rob Zombie (Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor).

New Southern's opener, "Words of Wisdom", sets the stage for this band and album's rebellious nature. Anti-Mortem are not afraid to speak their mind about today's social and political climates and their disdain of a strict religious upbringing. The title track "New Southern" follows, and this attitude continues. Singer Larado Romo's vocals are full of this attitude, and he seems very much inspired by the brash style of Alice Cooper and the snarling of Dave Mustaine. "New Southern" seems very much to be a celebration of Anti-Mortem's Southern U.S. heritage--without being all redneck and 'Murica about it.

The single, "100% Pure American Rage", perfectly describes this band. The opening riffs from co-lead guitarists Nevada Romo and Zain Smith are incredible, and the rhythms from bassist Corey Henderson and drummer Levi Dickerson are super heavy and make a lasting impression. I heard another single of sorts the band released nearly a year before New Southern was out, which was the track "Stagnant Water." I thought THAT was one of the best things to happen in rock and roll in awhile. I was so wrong--"100% Pure American Rage" and many of the other songs completely outdid it.

The songs from New Southern have a consistent sound, that to describe it as "great", would be an understatement. There are a couple that break this pattern, however. "Black Heartbeat", which isn't really a ballad, is the album's slowest track. It's one of my favourites, if not my absolute favourite. It is the only song with hints of romance, albeit a failed one. It's not quite the typical song about woman troubles that you generally hear from the band's contemporaries on rock radio. It's darker and much more intense, but I could easily hear this song as Anti-Mortem's next single.

The uncharacteristically slow song is immediately followed by the ultra heavy and thrash-oriented song, "I Get Along with the Devil". The lyrics in this one have an intriguing concept with the line, "I get along with the devil, but I hate that motherfucker". The riffs on this one are big and bold, and I can really hear a Zakk Wylde influence here. This can also be heard, even more overtly, in the song "Wake Up". Certain nuances in either Romo's or Smith's playing just scream Zakk. "Wake Up" is one of the more political tracks from New Southern. With lyrics like "We gave you your power, and we can take it away" and "Give us a reason not to riot in the streets / Give us a voice and set your people free", Anti-Mortem reminds us in a bold and empowering way of the startling truth that in a democratic society we can vote out the leaders who disappoint us--even if it takes a lot of work and balls.

From beginning to end, New Southern is strong, powerful, and soulful. The ending tracks "Truck Stop Special" and "Jonesboro" really show off Larado Romo's emotional authenticity and strength as a vocalist.

The dirty, gritty, blues-based metal influence on New Southern is undeniable. Anti-Mortem displays several generations of musical inspiration--Black Sabbath, Pantera, Black Label Society, and Hellyeah, just to name a few. This young band has a lot of rage fuelling its musical fire--which is passionate, intelligent, and very sincere. Anti-Mortem does not present your typical whiny teenage angst. New Southern is something much more serious and exceedingly meaningful.

8 1/2 out of 10 stars

Nuclear Blast Records/Universal Music Australia
Official Anti-Mortem Website

Zakk Wylde digs his unique mix of rockers and ballads deep from the 'Catacombs'

After spending some time on the acoustic cover album, The Song Remains Not the Same (2011), and live album, Unblackened (2013), Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society has released their first full studio album of original material since 2010's Order of the Black.

Opening a new chapter in their career with new drummer Chad Szeliga (ex-Breaking Benjamin/Scott Stapp), the band continues into the musical direction of Order of the Black while creating a whole new selection of songs for fans to enjoy. In typical Zakk Fashion, Catacombs of the Black Vatican is filled with explosive hard rock tracks and soulful acoustic ballads.

Catacombs begins with the hard and heavy "Fields of Unforgiveness". It's exactly the kind of song you'd expect from Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society. With its memorable chorus of, "So you think that it's over / So you think that it's done", this track is a great way to kick off the album.

"Fields of Unforgiveness" is followed by the band's latest hit "My Dying Time". It's a bit slower than the opener, but it's darker and heavier too. Zakk's solo is fantastic as usual, and this track was a great choice for the album's lead single. "My Dying Time" certainly picks up where Order of the Black left off.

The hard rockers make up the bulk of Catacombs of the Black Vatican. "Heart of Darkness", "Damn the Flood", and "Beyond the Down" particularly stick out. "Heart of Darkness" has quite a contemporary sound, and I could easily hear it as the next radio single. "Beyond the Down", while it is a shorter track, the riffs are no less impressive. They really highlight bassist John "JD" DeServio's skills. "Damn the Flood" might just be my favorite--with its high energy and driving rhythm. All of these tracks have the phenomenal solos you can always count on Zakk to deliver.

Catacombs isn't short on ballads either. "Angel of Mercy" is the first one that appears on the album. Any fan of the band could tell you that Zakk's vocals on Black Label ballads generally have a certain quality. On this track, however, the vocals didn't initially scream Zakk. I thought it was a guest musician or other band member at first. Nonetheless, I love the string arrangement that complements the guitar, and it makes a beautiful song even more beautiful.

The final track on the standard version of Catacombs of the Black Vatican is also a ballad. "Shades of Gray" is very soulful, with the signature Zakk vocals. It is mostly acoustic with a '50s malt shop rock feel. The guitar solo is electric, however.

The deluxe "Black Edition" has two bonus tracks, "Blind Man" and "Hell and Fire". "Blind Man" is a decent upbeat acoustic track, with some electric mixed in, but the ballad "Hell and Fire" really made an impression. It is romantic and emotional with lyrics like "For you I'd walk through Hell and fire" and, compared to the others from Catacombs of the Black Vatican, it really stands up to the band's previous ballads. This song should have been promoted to a normal album track and not be seen as the afterthought that bonus tracks often are.

New drummer Chad Szeliga proves to be an excellent addition to the band on Catacombs of the Black Vatican. His playing especially stands out on the track "Empty Promises". Szeliga is not the only new member of Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society. Last year, the band amicably parted ways with longtime touring guitarist Nick "Evil Twin" Catanese. Dario Lorina (of Lizzy Borden) has been added to the lineup to play for the band's live performances. Catanese was known for his ability to keep up with Zakk Wylde's incredible talent, and fans are eager to see if Lorina can do the same.

Catacombs of the Black Vatican is the perfect counterpart to Order of the Black and the band's previous albums. Zakk Wylde and Black Label Society have an unmistakable and unparalleled sound that remains consistent despite recent lineup changes.

7 1/2 out of 10 stars

Bullet Proof AU
Official Black Label Society Website

American band combines distinct sounds from the other side of the Atlantic

Slough Feg might just be one of the most interesting and prolific bands you've never heard of before. That's certainly the case for me. With their ninth studio album Digital Resistance, Slough Feg continues into their New Wave of British Heavy Metal sound with some Irish folk thrown in that ranges from blatantly obvious to pleasantly surprising and subtle.

Digital Resistance begins with the very folky "Analogue Avengers/Bertrand Russell's Sex Den". This track brings to mind the "Stonehenge" scene with the dancing dwarves from This is Spinal Tap. While it certainly isn't a metal song by any means, it is good and still has a certain heavy quality to it. The rest of Digital Resistance is undeniably metal, so this song is more like a lead-in. Vocalist/guitarist and only original Slough Feg member Mike Scalzi's singing is really emotive, and the lyrics such as "lust turns to avarice / overthrown by cowardice" seem to be elegant and, at times, intellectual. The rhythm in which they are sung stay true to the old timey ballad.

Title track, "Digital Resistance", follows, and it is NWOBHM to the core. With its Thin Lizzy/Iron Maiden feel, I could honestly be led to believe Slough Feg was some obscure older metal band I'd just never heard of before. "Magic Hooligan" is also especially Iron Maiden-esque after the Irish folk-inspired intro riffs. On this song, Scalzi sounds like the perfect combination of Paul DiAnno and Bruce Dickinson. He's got the attitude and rough edge of Paul with the strength and theatricality of Bruce. Like "Hooligan," Digital Resistance's lead single "Laser Enforcer" has a classic NWOBHM sound. The guitar work from Scalzi and Angelo Tringali is crisp and clear, and the way they work together is reminiscent of the Tipton/Downing or Murray/Smith power duos. Steve Harris would even be proud of Adrian Maestas' galloping bass line. When it was time to create an authentic early '80s metal sound, Slough Feg definitely looked to the right guys for inspiration.

"Habeas Corpsus" leans more toward the folk side of things with its lyrics and overall sound, but it still has a rock edge to it. It has a great electric guitar solo on top of the acoustic guitar that is present throughout the song. Strangely enough, this song reminds me of something you'd hear from Australian alt rockers Midnight Oil.

While some songs from Digital Resistance lead either in the folk or metal direction, final tracks "Curriculum Vitae," "The Luddite," and "Warrior's Dusk" all seem to nicely balance the two sounds.

The lyrical theme of Digital Resistance first presents itself in the album's title. While not a concept album, the songs pretty much stick to the topic of going back to basics and revolting against technology. Even though Slough Feg seems to be moving more and more into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal direction, the lyrical tradition of vivid storytelling is keeping the folk sound alive and well.

As a NWOBHM worshiper, I enjoyed Slough Feg's Digital Resistance. I do wish the songs had been a bit catchier, as the lyrics were definitely "smarter" than your average Def Leppard, Saxon, or even Maiden. The band's authenticity and uniqueness made up for it though. Digital Resistance is likely to appeal to fans of the metal classics, especially those looking for something a bit different that often borders on the cultural and intellectual.

7 1/2 out of 10 stars

Metal Blade Records/Rocket Distribution
Official Slough Feg Website

Versatile guitarist goes full on metal for latest album

Being best known for his work with both pop artists Madonna and Adam Lambert as well as the industrial band Prong kind of makes Monte Pittman an anomaly within the metal world. With his third solo album, The Power of Three, however, there is little room left to wonder whether or not his true talent and roots lie on the heavier side of things.

The Power of Three's opening track and lead single, "Dark Horse", begins with acoustic guitar riff, but it still has this dark intensity to it. It soon goes into the rapid-fire heavy metal sound that will remain throughout the album. "Dark Horse" has sort of a Black Label Society quality to it, and I can almost picture Zakk Wylde jamming to this song, especially when the title comes up in the chorus. The rhythm in which the verse’s lyrics are sung is what really makes this song catchy and memorable. The vocals themselves aren't bad, but they're nothing spectacular either.

While the vocals lack some of the power and intensity that one would expect from such a heavy metal record, Monte Pittman's guitar godliness certainly makes up for it. The phenomenal solos from "Grand Illusion" and "Away From Here" honestly have me believing that Monte Pittman could be the Randy Rhoads of modern metal. His playing style is fast-paced, yet totally precise. Oddly enough, Monte actually took piano lessons from Randy's mother, Delores.

There are more great modern metal and contemporary hard rock riffs than you can count on The Power of Three. The bass rhythms from Max Whipple are always driving, and Kane Richotte's drumming is absolutely explosive, particularly on "Before the Mourning Son". Each song on The Power of Three is heavy, fast, and loud. No ballads here. The closest thing would be the ever so slightly slower song "End of the World". It's that one song that many albums have, that isn't the heaviest or the loudest, but for whatever reason it just sticks--and by God, you like it. It's certainly one of my favorites, and it seems the most current and "radio ready" than anything else on the album.

There is an undeniable thrash metal influence on The Power of Three. "Blood Hungry Thirst" is a great example with its Slayer-esque riffs. An early Metallica feel is especially present on the last two tracks "Missing" and "All is Fair in Love and War". The songs have a certain groove to them as well. Guitarist Alex Skolnick of Testament is a special guest on part of the 13-minute finale, "All is Fair in Love and War", as is Six Feet Under/ex-Cannibal Corpse vocalist Chris Barnes. His guttural death metal voice adds even more to this already heavy and rich album. This heaviness should not come as a surprise either, as Flemming Rasmussen--who is known for producing Metallica's Master of Puppets--produced The Power of Three.

Monte Pittman's The Power of Three makes 2014 look promising so far, at least musically. Pittman's guitar playing and songwriting talents are matched by few, and his reverence for the thrash and groove metal artists that came before him is apparent. His ability to respect the classics while still doing his own unique, relevant thing is commendable. This makes for a fantastic album in The Power of Three, which is likely to appeal to fans of high-quality music in multiple subgenres of hard rock and heavy metal.

8 out of 10 stars

Metal Blade Records/Rocket Distribution
Official Monte Pittman Website

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ex-Ozzy Osbourne/Badlands guitarist ready for a triumphant return

After a lengthy hiatus from the public eye, Jake E. Lee is back in the business of making rock 'n' roll with his newly assembled band Red Dragon Cartel. Before their self-titled debut album was released in January, Red Dragon Cartel made their live debut at the Whiskey A Go Go nightclub in Los Angeles on December 12th 2013. It did not go off without a hitch, however. A less than stellar performance from vocalist D.J. Smith led to disappointment and scathing reviews. Smith--known for his work with the band Harem Scarem--apologized for this, and Lee was pretty much forced to defend his choice of singer to fans. After watching videos of said performance on YouTube, I was anxious to hear how the vocals on the album really panned out. They couldn't get much worse, but how much better would they actually be?

The first track off Red Dragon Cartel is the band's lead single, "Deceived". It's hard to not notice that the intro riffs are really reminiscent of Bark at the Moon-era Ozzy. I was impressed there, but not at all when the vocals kicked in. They do improve at the "bodies burning/world is turning" line, and the chorus is catchy in a Van Halen sort of way. Despite a shaky start with the vocals, "Deceived" is a good song for starting the album. I was curious about how much more Ozzy-sounding stuff I should expect, but this is the only song from Red Dragon Cartel that REALLY has that vibe. That was nice to hear, but it was also great to hear other facets of Jake.

The next track, "Shout it Out", has some hard riffs in the intro, and bassist Ronnie Mancuso's are especially heavy. D.J. Smith's vocals are more fitting for this song compared to the first, but they're still not great. That high note before the first chorus is pretty shaky. The lyrics seem a bit repetitive at first, but they quickly become catchy and energizing. I enjoyed Jake's solo on this song, particularly the part where it speeds up.

Another song that is heavy on the bass--along with having some blazing fast guitar riffs--is "Feeder". Upon my first listen to Red Dragon Cartel, I figured D.J. would be singing on this one too. But from out of nowhere, there is Robin Zander from Cheap Trick! He is one of the four guest vocalists featured on the album--the others being Maria Brink of In This Moment, Paul DiAnno formerly of Iron Maiden, and Canadian singer/actress Sass Jordan. Robin was the absolute perfect choice for this track. His singing style fits well with Jake's playing, and I would love to hear more collaborations from the two of them. "Feeder" sounds so much more professional and polished than the previous songs, and it's a lot of what I initially expected Red Dragon Cartel to sound like.

Maria Brink's track "Big Mouth" is another high point for Red Dragon Cartel. It boasts some really raw, heavy guitar riffs, and the vocals are absolutely sexy. This song is a great blend of old and current metal. I'm a major In This Moment fan, so of all the tracks on the album, this one really caught and kept my attention.

The heaviest song from Red Dragon Cartel is "War Machine" and, no, this isn't a cover of the KISS song. The intro guitar riffs are distorted and are certainly a throwback to early metal. It is a bit darker than the rest of the album's songs, and it has a major Black Sabbath feel to it. D.J. Smith's vocals aren't too bad on this one as he attempts to enunciate like Ozzy without overdoing it. I also enjoyed the "ooh's" in the backing vocals.

"Exquisite Tenderness" is the album's final track, and it is an interesting way to wrap things up. It is a short instrumental piano composition played by Jake E. Lee. It's nowhere near rock 'n' roll, but it's still very good. It's the music I imagine Schroeder from Peanuts playing once he grew up. Just try to picture it.

Some of the songs from Red Dragon Cartel are quite good. "Deceived", "Feeder", and "Big Mouth" particularly stand out. Jake E. Lee--who I've always seen as underrated--has undeniable talent. I am just less than impressed with his choice of vocalist in D.J. Smith.

I am also confused about this album's goal, since half of the songs have guest vocalists and other musicians who lent their talents before bassist Ronnie Mancuso and drummer Jonas Fairley were recruited. Bassists Rex Brown (Kill Devil Hill/ex-Pantera), Scott Reeder (Kyuss), and Todd Kerns (Slash's Conspirators) played on the the album; as did drummers Jeremy Spencer (Five Finger Death Punch) and Brent Fitz (Slash's Conspirators). This makes me wonder if this is a real band or Jake E. Lee & The Hired Help. I have seen the band billed as Red Dragon Cartel and "Jake E. Lee's Red Dragon Cartel". Pick one. Seriously. Perhaps Jake should have taken Slash's route and done one album with several singers before settling on the right man (or woman) for the job. Either way, the album is recorded and out, and there's nothing left to do but sit back and enjoy Jake E. Lee's much awaited comeback.

6 1/2 out of 10 stars

Frontiers Records
Official Red Dragon Cartel Website

Monday, January 13, 2014

Adelaide band aims for success with 'El Pistolero'

Australian rockers Tracer have teamed up with renowned producer Kevin Shirley to bring forth their third album, El Pistolero. Shirley has worked with legendary acts such as Iron Maiden, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and Slayer. Tracer hopes to pay homage to all these guys with their classic rock and early metal inspired sound. This newest release is a themed album of sorts--focusing on the bad ass, gun-crazed title character El Pistolero.

The album's opening track is the appropriately titled "El Pistolero". It has a heavy sound right from the get-go and some straight up rock and roll guitar riffs. I immediately liked singer Michael Brown's vocals--they fit well with the style of music, and he sings with a lot off feeling. It's definitely not that whiny shit that has become so popular these days. The lyrics, telling the story of an "above the law" gun-wielding madman, set up the theme that is present for the rest of the album.

"Lady Killer" follows the opening track. It starts out a bit slower but soon becomes an equally hard rocking song. The chorus is super catchy, particularly the line, "See you in Hell where the rest of my friends will be!" The guitar solo has a classic rock-inspired sound.

"Ballad of El Pistolero" is an acoustic ballad that is mid-album. It sounds so unlike all the previous songs. It is quite slow and has a Spanish feel to it. The vocals are quiet, almost monotone. It goes straight into the heavy, gritty rocker "Santa Cecilia". At a minute long, it works very well as a lead-in.

One song on El Pistolero that I just really dig is "Wolf in Cheap Clothes" and I love the humorous play on words in the title. The intro riffs actually have a KISS sound to them, and the same rocking riffs are appear between the verses. The track also features a nice classic rock styled guitar solo with some blisteringly intense notes.

The next track, "Scream in Silence", is a bit different, in that it starts out so slowly and is rather ethereal. Andre Wise's drumming kicks in, giving the song some rhythm. That is joined by calm, yet somehow still emotional, vocals and a laid back guitar and bass. This all changes for the much more powerful chorus. The song becomes louder and heavier, and it momentarily takes on a '90s grunge sound.

"Until the War is Won" has an interesting Western sound in the guitar work and rhythm. Its slowness definitely evokes an image of the desert. The gun fighting subject matter and lyrics about vigilantism make his track even more perfect for this album.

"Now I Ride" is the final track on El Pistolero. It is hard and heavy like the album's earlier tracks. It is a good song, but I question its placement on the album. The lyrics certainly keep with the theme of El Pistolero, but the uncommon sound of "Until the War Is Won" could have been a better fit as the finale since it is so memorable.

This album is unquestionably enjoyable. Several songs stuck out as good ones--namely "Wolf in Cheap Clothes" and "Scream in Silence". The Western and desert influences were unique and refreshing to hear. Tracer have not yet joined the ranks of those other Kevin Shirley-produced acts, but they are a promising new rock band. Tracer and their album El Pistolero do have a great sound to them, one that hard rock fans--particularly grunge that lean toward the Soundgarden-type stuff--are sure to embrace if given the chance.

7 out of 10 stars

Mascot Records
Tracer Official Website

The 'monstrous sludge from west of the desert' emerges with new EP

The Devil Rides Out are a lot of things - heavy, bluesy, gritty, and sludgy - but there is one thing about them that really surprises me. They're Australian. When I first listened to this band, I would have sworn up and down they were from the American South. I'm from the American South, and The Devil Rides Out sure fooled me. The sound these Perth rockers project creates an image of a band playing in a dark, smoky bar in the middle of Texas with the likes of ZZ Top.

After gaining a following with their trilogy of EPs, The Devil Rides Out released their first full-length record The Heart & The Crown in 2010. They now have five new tracks to share with the world on their latest EP, Ugly Creatures.

The EP begins with the title track of sorts, "Ugly Creature", which starts off with a very heavy bass line followed by an energetic "woo!" This "woo!", however, does not sound like the vocals that are to come. I was expecting some powerful and blues-oriented vocals, but not something this loud. Singer Joey K's voice reminds me a lot of Glenn Danzig with a bit of Henry Rollins and even some Billy Gibbons thrown in. Andrew Ewing's guitar playing is hard and heavy, and it is most prominent between verses and during instrumental breaks. "Ugly Creature" is a long track, clocking in at 7:15. It ends with a lengthy jam where "Oh my God!" is shouted multiple times.

"Burn Again" is a re-tooled version of the song "Watch It Burn" from The Devil Rides Out's The Heart & The Crown album. It opens with amp feedback, and the vocals are much harsher on this version of the song. "Burn Again" has more of a slow, stoner rock vibe than the opening track, and it is also slower than its "Burn Again" predecessor. Something I find rather odd about the verses is that Joey K basically sings three words at a time, making an interesting rhythmic pattern. "Watch It Burn" is the shortest song on the EP at 4:05. It's certainly not a bad song, but I like the energy of the original "Watch It Burn" a lot better.

"The Righteous Walk" is Ugly Creatures' lead single. The intro is very blues-based, and the track is quite slow and laid back. This is the one I can REALLY imagine being played in the dark smoky bar in Texas. The lyrics about a man walking the streets at night to get home to his woman are timeless. The vocals on this track - and most of the others - are very loud and overpowering, almost having a Tasmanian Devil or Incredible Hulk sound to them. While I do understand that singer Joey K is trying to get a certain heavy, bluesy sound across, it often seems like he's trying too hard on this EP. His vocals on the previous EPs and album sound much more natural and balanced. Despite this, I really enjoyed the song "The Righteous Walk", as it stands out among the other tracks. It is quite long and so different from the other songs, so I am a bit intrigued that the band picked it to be the lead single.

The Devil Rides Out's Ugly Creatures has a dirty blues feel with a hint of jamming stoner rock. It is slow at times, while always retaining its heaviness. The vocals are heavy and interesting, but also often forced. I did enjoy the single "The Righteous Walk" because the raw emotional outpour made it really stand out amongst the other tracks. I'm on board with the overall sound of The Devil Rides Out, and I would recommend Ugly Creatures to fans of Clutch, Superchief, and other heavy metal bands from the blues-based stoner metal realm.

6 out of 10 stars

Impedance Records
The Devil Rides Out Official Website

Australia's Karnivool creates a rock laboratory with their latest project

Four years after Sound Awake, the Perth prog rockers have released Asymmetry. With their experimental approach, Karnivool continues to hone a sound that is anything but easy to define.

Asymmentry begins with the instrumental "Aum". It is slow and features a heavy, resonating bass line which is accompanied by guitar feedback and ambient noise. Parts of it almost have a '60s sci-fi sound, like something on a spaceship winding up. It does end with some vocals, but nothing comprehensible--just some faint oohs and ahhs.

Immediately following "Aum" is "Nachash". Jon Stockman's bass playing has the same heaviness with some added thumping. The intro is very fuzzy, and Ian Kenny's vocals start out as monotone. The singing becomes more melodic as the song shifts to a more conventional hard rock feel in some spots. "Nachash" is quite a dynamic track, as it constantly switches between hard and heavy to soft and quiet.

"We Are" is Asymmetry's lead single, which there is a music video for. The heavy thumping bass is especially prominent on this track, and the vocals are very melodic. I also find something strangely U2-ish about this song. The sounds are subtle, but the lyrics hint at a message of social consciousness. "We Are" contains a brief distorted guitar solo that is fairly impressive, and the vocals at the end have a really cool sounding harmony as the music fades out.

Near the middle of Asymmetry is the seven minute mammoth "Aeons". It begins with some electronic sounds that are reminiscent of a 1980s Atari game. It is consistently slow, yet heavy, but the melodies vary. Some memorable moments are the lyric "It's your funeral / it's your dying day" and the Bono-esque vocals on the "When I breathe again..." lines. "Aeons" takes on a modern alt rock feel during the bridge with the climactic "Chemical fires will signal we're dead" refrain. The song keeps building up--until it abruptly ends with more electronic sounds.

"Asymmetry" is the very short and mostly instrumental title track. It predominately features a certain super repetitive and almost grating sound. A distorted guitar joins in, giving the song a more bearable rock feel. It ends with pounding percussion and some indecipherable vocals as it explodes with a static sound--leading right into the musically unrelated "Eidolon".

"Eidolon" is my favorite track from Karnivool's Asymmetry. It sounds pretty much like a typical alt rock song, and it is probably the most "regular" sounding and least experimental rock song on the album. I have nothing against experimentation, but I am just really drawn to this song. "Eidolon" does have its heavy moments, and the chorus is catchy with some repetition. Something else that may be worth mentioning is that the end randomly sounds like the beginning of "Running With the Devil" by Van Halen.

"Float" is the appropriately named ethereal song near the album's end. It is relaxing and calm, and the vocals are soothing. The melody is absolutely hauntingly beautiful. The end features some choral-style chanting followed by a high-pitched "nails on a chalkboard" type sound. That was slightly disappointing, because it seemed to take away from an otherwise purely pleasant song. Any of the other electronic or distorted effects--whether subtle or obvious--on this album sound very deliberate, so I accept whatever reason Karnivool had behind placing it there.

The final track on Asymmetry is "Om". It starts out with piano and some other subtler sounds. About a minute and a half into the song, a crackly old-sounding speech begins to play. It is about death and other dimensions. I actually Googled some of the dialog and discovered it to be a philosopher named Gerald Heard describing the effects of LSD. In the same video about LSD research, there is a woman experimenting with LSD who may sound quite familiar to rock audiences. A sample of her speaking was used in the intro to Rob Zombie's Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor album earlier this year. As the drug related talking on "Om" ends, the music fades out with a whirring sound, and the lengthy 67 minute album is finally over.

Karnivool's album Asymmetry is undoubtedly experimental, yet it does include some good hard rock moments. It's certainly heavy, but not in the typical metal fashion. It boasts some beautiful melodic moments, especially with Ian Kenny's vocals on the outstanding tracks "Eidolon" and "Float". Asymmetry may be not for everyone, especially those who are not used to prog rock or musical experimentation. As a more traditional rock and metal fan personally, I find that listening to this album with an open mind will definitely make it a more pleasurable experience.

6 1/2 out of 10 stars

Cymatic Records/Sony Music Australia
Karnivool Official Website