Monday, February 15, 2016

Milestones abound for German power metal pioneers

Helloween is gearing up to release their 15th studio album, My God-Given Right, but that is not the only thing the band is celebrating. This year will also be the 30th anniversary of Helloween’s 1985 debut album, Walls of Jericho. My God-Given Right also marks the first time the band has released five consecutive albums with the same line-up; one that includes co-founders and remaining original members Michael Weikath (guitar) and Markus Grosskopf (bass).

My God-Given Right is Helloween’s seventh studio album produced by noted power metal producer Charlie Bauerfiend. It also denotes the band’s return to Nuclear Blast Records after their departure in 2003 after the release of Rabbit Don’t Come Easy.

“Heroes” is My God Given-Right’s energetic opener. It instantly boasts powerful, modern guitar riffs from Michael Weikath and Sascha Gerstner. The positive lyrics, “Everyone can be a hero / We are, we are / Sometimes up and down to zero / We are, we are heroes,” are about everyday people fighting their way through life. At first I thought the rhyming of “zero” with “hero” was a little predictable and cheesy, but the song is so good, I didn’t care.

Following “Heroes” is the album’s lead single, “Battle’s Won”. There is a soaring metal scream from singer Andi Deris in the intro. “Battle’s Won” features accelerated guitar riffs, as it is quite a bit faster than the previous track. The chorus beginning with, “Stand tall, your battle’s won”, is bright and uplifting. It has a regal air about it, and the subtle hints of trumpet or synthesizer make it sound even more so.

"Lost in America" is the second single from My God-Given Right. Andi Deris’ vocals in the intro are full of attitude, and I love it. "Lost in America" has some great guitar riffs, and the song contains a nice mix of modern and classic metal sounds. It has a big, theatrical chorus, and it takes more of a classic power metal turn during the guitar solo. The song’s title and lyrics were inspired by an event that happened to the band. Years ago on a flight, there was an issue with the plane, and the pilot had to return to the airport. The guys in the band were just stuck on the plane, left to drink and wonder where the hell they were. They were “Lost in America” and afraid they wouldn’t make it to their next show on schedule. It’s pretty cool that Helloween had a bit of a Spinal Tap moment through no fault of their own, and they were able to make a great song out of it.

Title track "My God-Given Right" is highly rhythmic and has a bit of a speed metal edge to it. The drumming on this one from Daniel Löble is excellent, and it really stands out. The lyrics are about it being a "God-given right" to stand up and fight for what you want and what you believe in. You don’t have to just sit back and be passive in life. While it is brief, there is also a prominent bass solo from Markus Grosskopf after the guitar solo.

“The Swing of a Fallen World” is a darker, slower track that doesn’t fit the mould of most of the album. It’s not a typical power metal song, except for the guitar solo portion. Andi Deris’ vocals are not as clean and polished here either. While it isn’t the usual Helloween fare, “The Swing of a Fallen World” is one of my favourite songs from My God-Given Right, and the memorable rhythm really hooks you in.

“You, Still of War” is the album’s grand finale and longest track. It is slow in the intro, and as the guitars are added, it is still somewhat slow. But as it builds up, the riffs become much heavier and more bombastic. The drumming becomes a rapid blast beat like a machine gun, and the song reaches full speed at the chorus. “You, Still of War” features the only real overt use of synthesizer on the album. The guitar solo sticks very much to the classic power metal side of things, but the rest of the song is more diverse in style and speed.

Helloween’s My God-Given Right is a marvellous collection of songs. No song on this album is worth skipping, and tracks such as "Russian Roulé", "Claws", and "Living on the Edge" should not go unmentioned. Helloween are without a doubt metal legends, and My God-Given Right is proof they are as relevant as ever, even after 30 years, a couple of less than stellar records in the ‘90s, and major line-up changes.

7.5 out of 10 stars

Nuclear Blast Records/Universal Music Australia
Official Helloween Website

Finnish band speaks in the universal language of metal

Noita is the ninth studio album from Korpiklaani, a folk metal band from Lahti, Finland. It is the follow-up to 2012's Manala. While Manala was a much darker and heavier period for the band, Korpiklaani, which means "Forest Clan", still creates a unique style that is as very much metal as it is folk with Noita.

Noita is the Finnish word for "witch", but it also translates to "shaman" or "medicine man". This makes more sense, because Korpiklaani went by the name Shaman until 2003. Finnish and English versions of Manala were released, but Noita is all Finnish as of right now.

Noita starts off with "Viinamäen Mies" ("The Vineyard Man"). It is heavy on the accordion, but the underlying hard rock guitar riffs are still prominent. The bulk of the lyrics are in Finnish, but there is this noticeable and memorable chant of "hey hey hey!" that hooks you in. Jonne Järvelä's vocals lean more to a metal style than a folk style on this song. He has just the right amount of growl in his voice. The general mood of this song makes me want to drink beer and break things and be a Viking. "Viinamäen Mies" wins as an album opener.

"Lempo" is a spirited track about the god of love from Finnish mythology. The beginning sounds like something out of a Manowar song, except with a violin and an accordion. There is a fascinating tribal feel to Matti Johansson's drumming, especially in the first part. The metal elements on this one are heavier than on the first track, and Tuomas Rounakari's violin work is astounding. "Lempo" is catchy as hell, even though I have no clue what Jonne Järvelä is singing.

"Sahti", a song that seems to be about beer, and "Luontoni" ("My Nature") combine thrash metal-inspired riffs and speed with the accordion and violin to create extremely lively and rousing pieces. These contrast with "Minä Näin Vedessa Neidon" ("I Saw a Mermaid in the Water"), a much slower and darker song with a lengthy and involved violin solo.

One really unexpected moment from Noita was "Jouni Jouni." I listened to the album two or three times without fully realizing what it was. I kept thinking, "This sounds familiar. I know it does." Then, when I was translating the song titles to get a feel for what the songs were about, this title didn't translate because it happened to be a name. Upon further research, I learned that it was a cover of the Tommy James & The Shondells classic "Mony Mony"--only fully translated into Finnish and with the name changed to something a little more culturally relevant to a Finnish band. The choruses of the two versions sound pretty different, but the verses seem to match up pretty well once it all clicks. I really like this one, and it's much heavier and more creative than the Billy Idol cover we all grew up with.

"Ämmänhauta" is my favourite track from Noita along with "Lempo." It features a great balance of heavy metal guitar riffs mixed with the violin. Jonne Järvelä's vocals on this one are a little closer to the traditional "yoik" style of folk singing, but they're still a lot grittier. The lyrics have a certain cadence to them, and combined with the overall big sound, this makes "Ämmänhauta" so captivating.

Noita ends with "Sen Verran Minäkin Noita" ("It's a Shaman Too"). You can really hear a lot of classic/NWOBHM influence on this one. The galloping Iron Maiden-esque riffs in the intro caught me off guard, and they do carry over into other parts of the song. Jonne Järvelä sings the song's title in his lower register during the chorus, and it is rather dark and creepy. Finishing out the song in a unique fashion, violin and accordion solos from Tuomas Rounakari and Sami Perttula, respectively, fill what is normally the role of a guitar solo in a metal song.

Korpiklaani's Noita is filled with more than its fair share of memorable tracks. The band's style of mixing fast, heavy, and thrashing metal with traditional European folk music styles is intriguing, and Korpiklaani does it perfectly. Despite the fact that the lyrics are in Finnish, I am still able to connect with each of these songs on a certain level because of the band's intensity and great ability to convey their live energy onto a record. Noita is a remarkable album, and it certainly speaks volumes for the power of art and music to transcend language barriers while proving that metal may be a universal language.

8 out of 10 stars

Nuclear Blast Records/Universal Music Australia
Official Korpiklaani Website

Rock singer, cellist come together for new EP

Ex-Swans vocalist and keyboardist Jarboe has joined forces with experimental cellist Helen Money to create a self-titled EP, Jarboe & Helen Money. Money (also known as Alison Chesley) is not your typical rocker, but her style of playing is often referred to as "doom" since it has a dark, doom metal flavour to it. She has also contributed to albums by metal artists, including Megadeth and Disturbed.

Jarboe and Helen Money begin their EP with "For My Father". A slow song, it starts with a dark, looming cello. The vocals from Jarboe are distorted, and she is difficult to understand in parts. The lyrics contain themes of justice and inequality. There is heavy use of an echoing effect on the vocals, and the song's final words "embrace amnesty" echo and bleed into the next track.

"My Enemy My Friend" is an instrumental in which Helen Money embraces the plucking of the cello, which is prominent in the beginning. A piano and the use of the bow--layered with the plucking--join later. There is also a lot of use of electronic distortion. This unorthodox style also comes up in the pieces "Wired" and "Truth". The former is fuzzy and distorted with piano and a dissonant cello. It is mostly an instrumental with only some sung "oohs" and "ahhs." "Truth" begins with breathy "ahhs" and piano, and the strumming of the cello is prevalent. This one has words--repeated lyrics about "the moon and the sun and the truth."

"Hello Mr. Blue" is the pinnacle of Jarboe & Helen Money. The intro features heavy bass-like plucking of the cello, and a low "woah" begins that permeates the song for the duration. A bowed cello kicks in with Jarboe's singing of the lyrics. The vocals are clear, and the lyrics are the most memorable from the EP. Distortion of the music, along with sheer heaviness in the cello, gives "Hello Mr. Blue" a fuzzy, grungy rock sound. The song is interesting in a good way, but the grunts at the very end are a little off-putting.

The final track from Jarboe & Helen Money is "Every Confidence" which relies heavily on the electronic distortion. It contains a lot of what might be considered "noise," but with some traditional bow played cello notes mixed in.

Jarboe and Helen Money's collaborative debut is not metal, nor does it pretend to be. Singer Jarboe's roots are in rock music, and Helen Money's cello playing definitely has a doom metal intensity to it. The song "Hello Mr. Blue" is certainly worth checking out, and I would absolutely love to hear it in a horror movie or something similar. The union of Jarboe and Helen Money is an unconventional one, but those who are looking for something highly experimental and strangely dark may very well appreciate it.

6 out of 10 stars

Aurora Borealis
Jarboe & Helen Money on Bandcamp

Nightwish continues to evolve with new singer, new album

Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish has put forth their eighth studio album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, which is the follow-up to 2011's Imaginaerum. It is the first to feature new singer Floor Jansen, who replaced Anette Olzon, the vocalist who left the band during the Imaginaerum World Tour in 2012. It is also the first to not feature Nightwish's original drummer, Jukka Nevalainen, who is taking a temporary break.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful is a loose concept album, largely inspired by naturalist Charles Darwin and his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. This album contrasts with Nightwish's previous work, Imaginaerum, as its lyrical themes are based on science and reason, versus fantasy and imagination.

The album's opening track is "Shudder Before the Beautiful". It begins with narration by famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. As he finishes talking, shrieking orchestral strings hit and go straight into hard and heavy symphonic metal. Choral chants of "aaahhh" fill the first part of the song. The vocals from newcomer Floor Jansen are quite theatrical, especially during the chorus. The keyboards from bandleader Tuomas Holopainen complement the ultra metal guitar solo from Emppu Vuorinen very well.

"Weak Fantasy" has a big sound in the same vein as the opener, with even more use of the choral chanting. It starts out heavy, softens for the first verse, and gets heavier for the chorus. The lyrics of "Behold the crown of a heavenly spy / Forged in blood of those who defy / Kiss the ring, praise and sing / He loves you dwelling in fear and sin," are critical of religion and superstition. I love the edgy attitude in Floor's vocals on this song, which gives it a more raw, emotional appeal. Bassist Marco Hietala contributes vocals in last half of song, creating an interesting contrast to the feminine soprano vocals of Floor.

The lead single from Endless Forms Most Beautiful is "Élan". Its intro is heavy on the tin whistle and uilleann pipes, giving it a distinctly Irish sound and making it really stand out. Floor's vocals are delicate and crisp in the verses, but fuller and more dramatic for the chorus. "Élan" is not the heaviest track on the album, but it does get more of a rock edge in the chorus and the bridge. Its lyrics are about living life to the fullest and not being afraid to have a bit of adventure.

Titular "Endless Forms Most Beautiful", which is buried in the middle of the album, boasts some great metal guitar riffs right before the first verse. It is one of the heaviest and hardest rocking songs on Endless Forms Most Beautiful. The lyrics contain nature imagery and themes, and the backing vocals accompanied by a choir give the chorus a full and overflowing sound.

The album's grand finale is aptly titled "The Greatest Show on Earth", and shares its name with a Richard Dawkins book. It is made up of five distinct movements of sorts, and at about 25 minutes, it takes up the last third of the album. The part named "Four Point Six" opens with a piano and string arrangement. Two minutes into the piece, there is the sound of a thunderstorm along with some symphonic moments. Floor sings very briefly, and her vocals are in an operatic range on this one. It ends with a reading from Dawkins about understanding the universe.

Part II, called "Life," is hard and heavy metal with the Irish flavor of uilleann pipes. Floor sings in her lower register for the verses, playing a darker, scarier role. The chorus has the more common theatrical sound. "Life" has the standard verse-chorus-verse format, and at 5:05, it could be a standalone track. The next part, "The Toolmaker," is the longest movement and could also be a standalone song as well. It begins with monkey and jungle type sounds, along with some percussion. It features vocals from Hietala again, and this time is style is uniquely abrasive--kind of like a Billy Corgan-meets-Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil sort of thing. The vocals are odd at first, but they sound pretty good when Floor joins him. "The Toolmaker" has some fantastic guitar riffs and all the symphonic bombast you would expect from Nightwish.

"The Understanding" is slow and predominately features tin whistle and piano. There is no singing, only Richard Dawkins discussing, "We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds"--how the unborn had potential, but we living ones are the ones who made it. The final part of "The Greatest Show on Earth" is "Sea-Worm Driftwood". It consists of the sounds of ocean waves and Dawkins quoting Charles Darwin and speaking of the beauty in evolution--"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one. And that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

I believe Dawkins has used Darwin's words to perfectly describe this latest album from an evolving band with a beautiful sound.

7.5 out of 10 stars

Nuclear Blast Records/Universal Music Australia
Official Nightwish Website

Thin Lizzy members are full-time Black Star Riders with latest release

Ricky Warwick, Scott Gorham, and Damon Johnson are members of the recently resurrected legendary rock band Thin Lizzy. While they play shows featuring the classic Irish rockers' hits under the Thin Lizzy banner, they have also formed a band called Black Star Riders, under which the all band's newly written material is released. Robby Crane, who replaced Thin Lizzy's Marco Mendoza, joins them on bass, and Jimmy DeGrasso of Megadeth and Alice Cooper fame is on drums.

Black Star Riders' sophomore album, The Killer Instinct, was recorded in my home state of Tennessee and produced by Nick Raskulinecz. It was initially intended to be produced by Joe Elliott of Def Leppard--who helped launch lead vocalist Ricky Warwick's career--but he had to drop out due to his demanding Def Leppard schedule. The Killer Instinct is the follow-up to Black Star Riders' 2013 debut, All Hell Breaks Loose, which featured the successful single "Bound for Glory."

The Killer Instinct - which boasts a good mix of classic and more contemporary rock - kicks off with the title track, and it instantly has the twin guitar sound that made Thin Lizzy famous. It sounds a little bigger and slightly more modern, but it is still straight up classic hard rock. The chorus of "You gotta live with a killer instinct / You gotta die a little to survive / You gotta love with a killer instinct / You gotta hurt a little to get by" is catchy, and I like how they are a clever paradox that seems to make sense.

"Soldierstown", which is my favourite from the album, is also very much influenced by Thin Lizzy, and it has a lot of Irish musical influence as well. Ricky Warwick's vocals are muffled in the beginning, creating an interesting effect. "Soldierstown" has some fantastic NWOBHM guitar riffs and some rowdy backing vocals where band members chant "Tar a thighearna tar a thi". This is Gaelic for "come on thou Lord, come on thou being," and it fits well with the song's lyrics about mothers sending their sons off to war.

"Turn in Your Arms" is another track from The Killer Instinct that has the classic Thin Lizzy feel. However, it's got a very percussive Native American Indian sound in the intro, versus having the Irish element you might expect. The riffs get a little more contemporary as the song progresses, and it features one of the best guitar solos on the album. It is started by co-lead guitarist and Thin Lizzy stalwart Scott Gorham, then his counterpart Damon Johnson takes over. "Turn in Your Arms" lyrics contain themes of history, war, and the American Frontier, which really complement the music.

One of the more modern hard rock songs on the album is "Bullet Blues". It's one of the album's more memorable tracks, and I would love to hear it as the next single. The chorus, "Oh Lord help me and my bullet blues," is sure to get stuck in your head and make you want to hear more. "Bullet Blues" features great guitar solos from both Johnson and Gorham.

"Through the Motions" also takes the band in more of a modern direction. I absolutely love the main riff. It is highly memorable, and so is the chorus--"Do you / Do you ever get the notion? / Cuz you're / Cuz you're just going through the motions." It's gritty and aggressive, and it has a blistering guitar solo from Scott Gorham. Another gritty track in the same vein is the hard and heavy "Sex, Guns & Gasoline". The raw lyrics tell the stories of people with tragic lives and in bad situations.

The Killer Instinct is a solid album, and Black Star Riders are a really establishing themselves as a perennial rock band. The Killer Instinct boasts a delicate balance of the classic Thin Lizzy-inspired sound that these guys bring to the table mixed in with the more contemporary rock component. I have been following and enjoying vocalist Ricky Warwick's career ever since he opening for Def Leppard as a solo artist. He has breathed new life into the Thin Lizzy legacy and taken them into a new direction with Black Star Riders that is brand new while still respecting that legacy.

7.5 out of 10 stars

Nuclear Blast Records/Universal Music Australia
Official Black Star Riders Website