One thing that happens with every album, ever, in the history of record production, is that it will leave the artists’ control completely and go to the hands of the Mastering Engineer.  This is the step that puts the polish, the pizzazz, the extra touches on the songs to make them come together as an album.  It’s also, of late, where a completely listenable album gets killed.  This was the lesson I learned from Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” album.

Dear Metallica:  Do NOT allow this to happen, again.  Please. Please. PLEASE.

For reference, as I sat listening to “Pack Your Bags,” the aforementioned monster with the wall of sound and face-melting music, I was reminded of the difference between the released version of “Death Magnetic” and what later became known as the “Guitar Hero Mixes.”  If you’re not familiar with the tale that wasn’t right, to borrow from Helloween, the following transpired:

  • Metallica recorded “Death Magnetic.”
  • Guitar Hero Metallica needed the mixes – so the unmastered versions were sent.
  • ”Death Magnetic” was sent to mastering.
  • Metallica went on tour.
  • ”Death Magnetic” was released…overloud, and completely lacking dynamics.
  • Metallica was unhappy, and rightfully so.

What’s missing on the allmusic credits is anyone actually directly called a “Mastering Engineer.”  I wonder if that was on purpose.  The upshot is that a very solid, listenable album went to the mastering engineer and left an overdriven, crispy, clipping, mushy mess.  What do I mean?  Well, take a look at the waveforms for “All Nightmare Long.”

AllNightmareLong_comparison

The top waveform is from the album version.  The bottom waveform is from the mixes sent for inclusion in Guitar Hero:Metallica.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the top waveform is barely a waveform at all, with no room for dynamics and with boatloads of clipping – which you can actually hear in the song as clicking and crackling.  The biggest thing I noticed listening to the quieter, more sedate version of the song was that the intro vocals to each verse are run through a neat filter like James was singing through a fan.  This effect is completely lost in the album version, which is too bad, because it was a neat effect.

Dear Metallica: Do NOT allow this to happen again.  Please.  Please. PLEASE.

This was the lesson that I brought with me into approaching what is already a mine-field in the self- or tiny-budget-production arena, and that’s mastering your own mixes.  It’s generally seen as a “no no” and something that, under normal circumstances, I would try to avoid.  However, with no budget, it’s kind of hard to justify $50-$500 per song for mastering.  To me, what “Death Magnetic” told me, in no uncertain terms, was that – no matter what – don’t just slide the volume faders all the way up.  It also kept me mindful of the waveform, that precious waveform.  What it didn’t really prepare me for is how hard it is to maintain that waveform, and keep those dynamics alive, when the feedback from the artist seems to revolve around, almost to the exclusion of anything else, “just a touch louder.”  It’s hard, and it’s a delicate balance.  I know I’m not the only producer to encounter an artist who wants the album to be loud and in your face.  I think the biggest difference is that most producers have more experience with not only handling these requests with a polite, “no,” or, more importantly, how to actually give the bumps in volume without the rest of the mix suffering.  That was the biggest challenge for me. 

I think the worst part, for me, is that while working on this project, I was learning constantly.  Now, that, in and of itself, isn’t the bad part.  The bad part comes when you’ve sent all the masters off to the artist and they’ve been submitted for duplication and then you find that better way, that cleaner mix, that perfect sound.  Below is an example of that.  The song is “Tiocfaidh Ár Lá (Our Day Will Come)” and the top waveform is the album version while the bottom waveform is the “Perfexion Mix” that I’ve put together since.

Tiocfaidh_comparison

While it’s still nothing compared to the brutality that occurred with “Death Magnetic” and “All Nightmare Long,” it’s still a drastic difference.  While the bottom version of the song is obviously going to be quieter, meaning you’ll have to turn the volume up a bit if you want it to be the same volume, it’s also got much better definition, clarity and overall production quality and, for my money, sounds almost 100% better.  That said, this particular mix came two weeks too late and will, most likely, be relegated to a “remixed, remastered” version of the album to be released in the future.

So, this open letter I spoke of – here goes:

Dear Metallica,

Your music is enjoyed and treasured by millions. I have been a fan since “Ride the Lightning” back in 1985 – 30 of my 41 years.  I have been your strongest supported and, indeed, your harshest critic.  It’s probably a little strange, but, after all these years, you’re kind of like family and so, you take the good and you take the bad, but the love is still there.  I don’t know if you noticed that this past album, “Death Magnetic,” the criticism was not “wow…this is NOT metal, OR Metallica,” but instead, “wow – there’s so much of this album I’m NOT hearing because of the production and the decision to mash the living crap out of the mixes to win the ‘loudness war.’” 

There are so many dynamics-related things on “Death Magnetic” that a lot of people missed because they didn’t seek out a little-known, but well worth the investigation, group of files called the MIII mixes.  These mixes were the pre-master mixes that all had everything – clarity, dynamics, tone and, yes, power.  Sure, you had to turn it up a little more in the car, but you could also hear the bass line in “End of the Line,” the guitar movement during the chorus of “Broken, Beat and Scarred,” and, as mentioned above, the filtered vocals in “All Nightmare Long.”  While I’m not expert or a producer on the level of Rick Rubin – heck, I’m not comfortable being in the same sentence with Mr. Rubin! – I am someone who’s got enough mixing and producing experience under my belt to know one thing – to hell with the loudness war.  It is, indeed, a war no one wins and when it comes at the expense of the band – you know, you guys…the ones who pour your heart, soul and money into producing the music you love – and, ultimately, the fans who are paying to hear the music you’ve produced, it’s definitely a war not worth fighting.

So, with that, please take that into consideration when you enter and, eventually, leave the studio.  For the love of all that is good in this world, make sure your waveforms are clean, gentle and beautiful – full of dynamics and perhaps, more importantly, clarity.  Please make sure that my ears will hear every note, every high hat, every heavy, palm-muted down-stroke, every harmony.  Please take every step possible to make sure that the producer doesn’t allow the mastering engineer to take your hard work and turn it into an overloud, unlistenable jumble of crap, but instead a polished, pristine album worthy of the name “Metallica.”

Sincerely,

Phil

Now, I’ll preface this with saying, these aren’t tutorials.  There might be some nuggets of "how-to"-ness in there, but these are softer, more philosophical pieces that take you into the challenges I faced and how we got from "sure, I can help!" to "that’s it!  It’s perfect as we’re going to get it!  Let’s do this!"  For the record, we’re not there, yet.  Are we ever there, yet?

So…there’s this song.  It’s got a good hook and a good guitar line.  The vocals are good on the scratch track.  All in all, it sounds like a good track, probably on the back end of the album to help balance it out and make for a solid album start to finish.  Then something happened.  We brought in this fella John who was to play “fiddle.”  Well, John so happens to be brilliant and talented through and through and within one practice take with this song, we were all looking at each other like…”wow!”

At that point, the rest of the track needed to be laid down and with each piece, the monster grew.  Soon, there were re-recorded vocals, guitars, bass, bagpipes, bodhrun, djimbe, drums, and violins.  Some didn’t make the final cut.  Some takes got spliced and reworked enough to make a couple of solid tracks with the best all in one place.  If you were to place all the tracks into the mix and just let ‘em go, it would make you twitch – there’s THAT much going on in this song.

As happens, there were, in total, 48 mixdowns of this song to get it “right,” and, I think I mentioned, I’m not sure we are 100% there, but, we’re really close and part of it came from understanding that compression does when met with four main sources of volume in a track, even when there are 16 total tracks (excluding fx tracks).  We ran into a problem with the monster, once everything was fixed, tonally through EQs and light compression, some reverb here and there, and so on.  What’s the problem, you ask?  The monster gets hungry and has to eat things.

OK, so the metaphor may be getting stretched a little, but here’s the bottom line – when one thing gets loud, something else gets soft, and finding the balance is the true monster.  I tried so many methods to get the vocals to sit nicely while still allowing you to hear each part clearly.  It was almost comical, though, as I’d have what I thought was a good balance, and then after mixdown, the vocals would either be lost or so up front to a point where everything else sounded lost in the background…   So many iterations!  I finally discovered the culprit – the compressor in the Master track.

Full disclosure – I use the Slate Digital FG-X Mastering plugin and I really like it.   That said, it does what compressors/limiters do – when one thing gets louder than the threshold, it makes it quieter and when one frequency range is dominating the mix, bad things happen, overall.  What I found was, each individual track sounded absolutely fine when solo’d.  When I had vocals and “instruments,” it was fine.  The culprit?  The drums.  The train driving to oblivion was, in fact, obliterating the mix.  When I added the drums back in, the overall sound dropped ~3dB and, specifically, the vocals sank closer to 4dB. 

So, how does one tame a monster like this?  I basically figured out that I had to do what I tried a while ago – mix down the instrumentation and vocals separately and bring them together for a mixdown and then send that mixdown to the mastering round.  It wasn’t the most elegant solution, but it was the only solution I found – remember I’m a bit of a rookie with this! – that allowed the full dynamics of the instrumentation (all of it!) and vocals to coexist.  The end result?  An Irish Rebel Rock song that feels a lot like the Motörhead “Orgasmatron” cover train looks.

We live in a world that’s largely driven by the notion of style over substance and, to me, that’s pretty sad.  That said, that’s not really what this is about.  This is about what substance your style brings to the table, especially when you’re working with something that isn’t necessarily your style.

A little more opaque, this morning, with this entry, it would seem, allow me to clarify.  The artist in question can be described as an acoustic, Irish, rebel rock musician.  I can be described as a heavy metal, sometimes acoustic musician.  While an unlikely pairing, there are more similarities than I really thought, at first.  His musicianship and delivery bridge the gap, quite nicely, and I can appreciate the “slower stuff,” too.  It’s what we bring to the table and it’s what colors our views.  Learning to understand when it was just my “metal sensibilities” taking over and when it was something that would benefit the song was an slow process, mainly because there had to be an understanding that it was happening.  You also learn how much you appreciate listening to other styles of music when you can switch gears between them.

The most prominent example of this comes from a song that might get put into a “building a monster” entry, sometime later.  It’s been the most technically challenging track to nail down of any that I’ve dealt with.  Now, as a rookie, that doesn’t leave many – just all the other tracks on the album and then all the previous ones that I’ve practiced on in the past.  So, with that, the song grew from a jangly attitude song to a freaking beast over the course of recording.  Naturally, the metalhead in me screamed for a serious thickening underneath it all with double bass drums, pounding bass, vocal doubling ( or more!) and some effects on the violin to make it scream.  This, my friends, would make an even more gigantic mess than what have 26 tracks already makes, especially when 3 instruments are all fighting for the same frequencies – bagpipes, guitar and violin.

So, I had to step back and listen to some songs that brought those instruments together and get more in that mindset.  What it helped with, more than anything, was placement.  More on that in a later entry, but needless to say, when it comes to “wall of sound,” metal has a pretty good bead on it – though, not a corner on the market, as this song proves.  Still, letting the song be an Irish Rebel Rock song and not a slightly acoustic metal song was a challenge for me because of my “style,” but I couldn’t let my “style” run over the obvious, power substance of this track.

We all bring our own style to everything we do.  I’ve learned that the wisdom is when to let the style take a backseat to the substance at hand and let it have the spotlight.

Not just a fun reference to one of my favorite bands, growing up (BÖC), but also a nod towards my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice, Cockos’ Repear.  Now, going into this album’s production, I had *just*, and I mean within the previous week and a half or so, switched over from ProTools.  So, with that, it’s probably wise to go into why I switched and then how it influenced the production process.

Why I Switched

It boiled down to CPU bludgeoning, plain and simple.  Basically, I learned how to do everything I could do in ProTools with Reaper and with maybe 1/4 of the CPU cost which became very important as I started mixing a goodly number of tracks that, in Reaper, caused stuttering.  In ProTools, it just choked and died.  If there’s one thing that REALLY kills a workflow, it’s making a tweak, rendering the output, listening to it, going back in, making a tweak, rendering it out, and so on.  So, it was really simple for me to switch when one was able to give me everything I needed and not die a horrible death when asked to do just a little more.

The Impact

The impact was immediately discernable.  Full disclosure – behind closed doors, I created the projects for the first song in both ProTools and Reaper.  I still wasn’t willing to give up the familiar, comfortable, “industry standard” without a side-by-side comparison doing the exact same thing.  So, again, the impact was obvious and definite.  I added all the drum stems (kick, snare, tom 1 – 4, hi hat, crash), bass stems (di & mic’d), guitar stems (R & L), violin stems (takes 1 & 2) and vocal stems (primary, double).  So, it total, I added 16 tracks to each DAW.  Then I pressed “play.”  

Background: my system, at the time, was an AMD Athlon II Duo-core 3GHz system with 8GB RAM.

So, I pressed play, first in ProTools then, later in Reaper.  The result?  ProTools chopped, stuttered, stopped.  Reaper, played, though with choppiness, at first, which smoothed out after about 30 seconds.  Now, I know there are settings in each to optimize playback so that it’s not quite so bad, but, to me, if you can’t handle the first song I throw at you with your default settings, I’m sorry but…it’s not me, it’s you.

So, the impact on production was that, at least on my desktop system, I was able to track and edit every song including one that’s a 22-track romping wall of sound.  My laptop, on the other, was less forgiving than even the desktop and Reaper was the clear choice, there, though even it couldn’t play the two monster tracks…poor laptop. 

What sealed it?  Actually adding effect inserts on the tracks.  Reaper kept chugging while ProTools seized and just refused.  So…yeah, from a workflow standpoint, being able to do things with the tracks was a major plus, as I’m sure you’re aware.

Update to the above number – because of the necessity to layer the vocals even more and add some “oomph” to the drums in places, it’s become a 28-track monster, but that also includes side-chained bussing for effects sends and better overall track organization.  That said, it still choked ProTools dead.

Next installment – Part III – Style’s substance

This is going to be a multi-part retrospective and exposition on what it has been like being tapped to produce an album with, literally, no previous experience.  In a case of “we all have to start somewhere” mixed with “I know a lot of theory” with a sprinkle of “well, here were go, then!” I charged forth with dark gusto into a land heretofore unknown and full of peril, reward, but most of all, potential.

First and foremost, you might ask how this came about.  Basically, I know an artist who’s busted his hump for the last few decades and hasn’t hit a break, and was coming up on another roadblock and it all seemed to revolve around money.  It was at that point that I took what little knowledge I had and, yes Ms. Mosby, “a little learnin’ is a dangerous thing,” and threw my hat into the ring, offering whatever assistance and expertise I could to help him get this record not only recorded, but produced and into the hands of fans, new and old.  For the record, I had NO idea what I was getting into.  This is, of course, to be expected.

I had just made the full defection from ProTools to Reaper and, as such, was currently learning the ropes with it and had no established workflow to speak of, no real concept of what I needed to do, template-wise, and no understanding of how much it was going to take to get from “artist arriving” to “handing off a CD.”  For the record, we’re still not to that last point, but we’re getting there.  It’s a process – that’s something you need to understand from the outset – and it’s a living, breathing thing.

1. Step one – Recording

The discussions are over and it’s time to get the musician in there.  Now, there are some things to be done!  I had looked over all the checklists.  I had looked at all the preparatory documentation we should need and printed off individual track worksheets.  I had read so many blogs, forum threads, eBooks and articles that my head was swimming.  It was at this point I was eternally grateful that my partner in this venture had quite a number of years’ experience with the recording side of things.  He took over the reigns for recording, but that, also, set up an interesting dynamic later on.  He’s Mac based and we ended up doing all of the recording and preliminary editing in LogicPro X. 

Honestly, as the mixer/producer, my role in this situation was mainly as cheerleader. I kept notes to the best of my ability and tried to keep my burgeoning cold at bay so as not to ruin many takes with a rogue cough or sneeze.  Two and a half minutes never felt so long as when you’ve got a tickle in the back of the throat and a sneeze on-deck and you pretty much have to hold your breath the entire time.  Since this was late December, a lot of us were sniffly, including our brilliant violinist who despite coming in and just blowing us away, had a little “snurf!” at the end of just about every run.  I felt bad, but with a little editing, those were mostly editable and those that weren’t, I quickly figured out how to bury in the mix.

All in all, with all the musicians, from scratch tracks to “final takes,” it took around 7 days, spread over a couple of weekends.  There was travel involved for a few, and some broken up sessions, tackling a few songs at a time, as one would expect, and it was amazing to watch, learn, and hear everything start to come together.  We were hearing it go from mere ideas and hopes to an actual album with a metric tonne, as it were, of potential. 

The vocals were – and still are – a significant challenge in this because the artist is not some pop diva or emo mewler, but rather an Irish folk-rocker (rebel rocker!) who had not only a fairly wide dynamic range, overall, but a strong set of pipes that took a lot of finessing to tame.  It was also a voice that, as the mixing process progressed, seemed to defy all of the common “standards” and I found myself confused and searching in a lot of ways as to how to make the voice sound big without sounding thin or “crispy” which is something that you know when you hear it.

We used quality mics for the recording and thought we had it all finished.  We were wrong.  I was finding that I had to really work with and mess with and tweak the vocals in order to give them “life.”  This went on for a couple of iterations back and forth and tweaking and grumbling.  Finally, the artist re-recorded the vocals with a different mic, sent the files, and they sounded good: warm, up front, and not really needing much by way of an EQ treatment.

This brings us to a logical stopping point and leads us to part 2 – Don’t fear the Reaper…

Sometimes Our Masks Break

January 9, 2015

[Somehow, this never published.  Remedying that, now.]

If you’ve never suffered with depression and you’re spouting your opinion on how a person feels, I want you to stop.  Just…stop.  You have no idea.  You may think you do, but you don’t.  The only way you can even come close is if you’ve watched someone, closely, someone you love, perhaps, suffer with depression.  Even then, it’s kind of like watching someone with a cast, be it on an arm or leg.  You can sympathize with the person wearing the cast, but unless you’ve broken a bone, you have no idea what all is entailed in having your arm or leg immobilized for a month, with aching, itching, and that weird feeling of huge amounts of pent up energy that sits and almost tingles in futility, or with the doctor visits and pain killers and months of physical therapy, thereafter. Nor can you understand depression.  Not fully.

I don’t talk about my depression, really.  This is mostly because I feel it’s not anyone’s business but, also, because with the stereotypes and stigmas that are still pervasive in our society, most people are ill-equipped to know how to deal with someone who’s depressed.  It’s hard enough interacting and dealing with people, as it is, and this may just be from the depressive perspective since I only have one perspective and that’s it, let alone with people who are armed only with what mass media have told them about depression.  One of the biggest things is understanding and there’s so little of that in the world, today, that it’s naïve to think there would be much in this regard.  People tend to have a limited amount of understanding for something they can’t comprehend, fully.  That’s OK – I understand that.  I’m not criticizing someone who doesn’t understand depression, I’m just asking you keep your opinions to yourself when you tell me, or the rest of the world, how someone who is depressed must be feeling.  There’s no “must be” with no frame of reference.

Most recently, what Robin Williams’ death has brought to the fore is something that I’ve dealt with for most of my life, and it’s not just dealing depression. It’s dealing with someone you love feeling so emotionally injured, so depressed, so alone, so incapable of seeing any other solution in a great, wide world of solutions, as to kill themselves.  There aren’t a lot of people in this world equipped to deal with this, especially when it’s someone close to them, someone beloved.  I’m not an expert, by any stretch.  I’m just a guy, already someone who suffers with depression, who has the added burden of having two people in his life take theirs.

There have been people attacking Robin for his choice.  It’s almost as if they feel this was an easy choice made with no forethought or attention paid to consequence.  It’s almost as if they have no idea what they’re speaking of, at all, when it comes to depression and the suicidal thoughts that haunt individuals every waking moment of every day making it seem almost like a release from a chrysalis of confusion, silent suffering and emotional and physical pain.  Yes, it’s like those ads that have run in the last few years – depression hurts.  Physically.

Part of this, for me, is that this man, Shepard Smith, just suffered a loss, as did the rest of us, of someone he loved growing up and as an adult.  He’s angry that Robin has left him in this way.  That’s OK — I get it.  We all feel that way.  The difference is that when you’re surrounded by ignorant name calling and vitriol all day, as is the environment I glean from watching 30 seconds of Fox "News," you react not as a reasonable adult, but as a schoolyard bully whose favorite teacher just announced she was leaving.  She’s now the worst person ever to walk this earth.   Likewise, Robin suddenly became a "coward."  I’m not apologizing for this Smith person.  I don’t know him. I just know people like him.  Schoolyard bullies don’t react with compassion towards the person or situation.  They react by lashing out. 

It’s easy to fall back to the pervasive thoughts from a less enlightened age (prior to the 1990s, really) where suicide WAS seen as cowardice by so many.  What’s hard is to FEEL and understand what a person so completely devoid of hope as to *kill* themselves is feeling, even a sliver.  One thing FoxNews has never been about is sympathizing with "other" and understanding someone else’s perspective.  I truly hope that this person never has to face this so-called cowardice in any aspect of his life other than vicariously and detached.  It’s not something I would wish on anyone.

The Year in Metal 2014

January 2, 2015

It’s hard to believe another year has been and, now, gone, and harder, still, to believe the metal that has been offered to us.  Some of it has been excellent, some not as much, and there is still a huge amount I haven’t listened to.  That said, I’ve tried to keep up on the bands I have enjoyed over the years and, really, I haven’t been disappointed, this year.  Let’s hope that is a trend that continues, into the upcoming year.  So, with that, let’s get to some reviews!  Now, these are going to be largely (but not exclusively) chronological, as I am relying on Wikipedia’s “2014 Metal Releases” and the sort in MusicBee (I heartily endorse this program as an iTunes or MediaMonkey replacement, by the way) to guide me through the releases.  Also, bear in mind, as I’ve gotten more into the production aspect of music, I’ve also started listening more closely to those aspects of releases, as well, as that tends to color my perception almost as much as the music does.  So, let’s do this!

Iced Earth – Plagues of Babylon

I started to listen to this band in 1992 with the release of “Night of the Stormrider.”  I haven’t always been down with some of the musical direction, but have always appreciated how hard this band works and how much they pour into their releases which is why I’m critical when they don’t.  If you’re worried this is one of the releases where they don’t pour everything they have into it – don’t!  From the opening drum salvos to the ending cover of “Highwayman,” it’s high energy and the musicianship is spot on with a mix to match.  This is an album that deserves more than a casual spin in your CD player or MP3 playlist rotation. 

Flotsam and Jetsam – No Place for Disgrace 2014

Let’s get one thing straight – this album was badass and regarded as a classic going in, so there was little doubt that re-recording with the current lineup and modern recording technology and methods was going to make this more than just a little EPIC.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was suitably impressed.  Not only does the music, itself, still hold up, but the modernized treatment gave a definition that my old tapes from beyond the mists of history lacked.  Eric can still belt it out and the production really did the tracks justice.  Seek this out, even if you think that all you need is the original album.

Van Canto – Dawn of the Brave

So, it was “Badaboom” that intrigued me enough to check out the band’s newest release.  If you’re not familiar with them, the do acapella metal.  More importantly, they do it well.  I enjoyed the heck out of this release.  While there are instruments other than the human voice, there was enough “dugga-da-doom” and massively lush harmonies to carry this album and make it more than just a novelty act.  Check them out, if you haven’t!

Babymetal – Babymetal

OK, so, speaking of “novelty acts,” this is one of the most polarizing bands out there with “true” metal fans rolling their eyes and grumping about it being far too “cute” for metal and the fans of band arguing that it’s just another aspect of the same “metal” genre as everything.  I’m on the fence.  There are times when I dig it, but there are times I’m not in the mood.  Here’s the thing, though – the music is solid – they have a good band backing up the three-headed Hello Kitty monster.  I have to be in the mood, but I can’t say it’s “crap” outright, because it’s not.  It IS however, what happens when J-Pop and Metal collide head-on and metal mostly wins.

Manowar – Kings of Metal MMXIV

Power metal from the progenitors of the sub-genre as you would expect it – over the top, musically and lyrically with heaping cheese.  This album takes me back to 1984 in a lot of ways, but with a production that reminds me is 30 years later.  Gang-vocals, huge-hooks, epic topics – everything the Manowar fan loves and expects.  I, for one, was not disappointed in the least from this release and, really, if you’re looking for a time machine to take you back to the land of loincloths, body oil and power-chords, this is for you!

Wolves Like Us – Black Soul Choir

A band that reminds me of what would happen if Paradise Lost were way more up-beat.  A well-balanced album that gives you thick mixes of what I guess is being referred to as “groove metal,” now.  Very listenable and easy to catch yourself bobbing your head along to.  I enjoyed the album, a lot.  It wasn’t one I was expecting, but was pleasantly surprised.  Check ‘em out, if you haven’t!

Profane Omen – Reset

The follow-up to “Destroy!” boasts a very-widely mixed soundstage from which to deliver relentless, pounding thrash.  Everything you want from them is back – the driving rhythm with excellent backbeat, hooky-yet-suitably-complex riffs, well-matched dual vocal style delivery and well-structured songs.  If you’ve not heard of or heard them, do yourself a favor and check them out.  This release is solid and carries itself well, delivering the goods that reach the bar set by the previous effort – and that was a fairly high bar.

Animals as Leaders – The Joy of Motion

From delightfully airy to thunderously bludgeoning, Tosin Abassi’s trio featuring two 8-string guitars and a drumset delivers some of the most enjoyable prog-yet-proto-thrash you can find and if you were lucky enough to catch them on the road with the band in the next capsule review, then you were treating to an amazing show.  The album itself is mixed exceptionally well, capturing the wide tones being delivered within.  This is an exceptional album and, again, if you happen to be able to catch these folks live, DO IT.  Watching Tosin perform the magic captured on this album live is well worth the price of admission, as is the album, itself.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Conquering Dystopia – S/T

If you’re a fan of metal, you know the members that comprised this “supergroup.”  Jeff Loomis and Keith Merrow helm the guitars with Cannibal Corpse’s Alex Webster manning the base and Alex Rudinger of the Faceless providing the face-melting drumming to bring you one of the finest instrumental metal albums to be released in a long time.  Now, I’m an admitted fanboy of both Jeff Loomis and Keith Merrow, and both just flat-out shred on this album.  I’ve heard people mention they wished Keith had actual solos on the album, and to a point I agree, but if you listen to the rhythms being laid down and played by Keith, they are, in themselves, “rhythm solos.”  Watching this band play live, I was ever more impressed with them, if possible.  The bottom line is that this effort lays waste of your eardrums in the best way possible and is definitely on the short-list for album of the year, in my opinion. 

Helstar – This Wicked Nest

Another band I’ve listened to since the mid-80s, I find Helstar to be a band that is either either spot-on or the exact opposite (“spot-off” didn’t sound right…) when it comes to releases.  I didn’t enjoy “The Glory of Chaos” as much as “The King of Hell,” so it was with a little trepidation that I spun “This Wicked Nest.”  So, with a pleasant intro, we get a political statement, and then we get kicked in the teeth. YES!  The vocals seemed mixed a bit far back for my taste, which is what makes this album not one of the best of the year.  Everything else about this album just destroys, in a good way, and I recommend it, highly.  Excellent job, fellas!

Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun

These guys always bring a soundscape that demands attention to not only the overall song, but to the little things.  Very wide mix with a dense carpet of sounds that take you into a very solid album.  Another band I wish had mixed the vocals a little more up-front, with the style of almost ambient death (is that a thing?) first song, I understand it, but let’s call it personal preference.  That said, the album delivers an excellent group of songs and is most definitely worth a listen.  I will also say, that aside from my kibitz about the vocals, this album is mixed really well and really helps draw the listener into a different place while listening, which is what you’re going for, really.  Bottom line?  This is a solid album.  I like it. 

Prong – Ruining Lives

This is a fun, driving album.  Tommy Victor splitting duties with Danzig hasn’t seemed to have diminished the songwriting that has made Prong one of my favorite bands in “Beg To Differ.”  In fact, if anything, it’s made it more focused and while still having the prog elements that we know and love, there’s a drive and heaviness that makes me a very happy man.  The riffing is tight, the vocal delivery spot-on and a rhythm section that carries you to Prong bliss.  And, yes, that’s a thing, and it’s a thing I haven’t felt since “Cleansing.”  So, there.  As far as delivering album of the year, it might be just shy, but for delivering “the goods” and making a Prong fan very happy, this does so in spades.

Christopher Lee – Metal Knight

So, if you took the combined ages of everyone in some of these upstart metal bands, it wouldn’t add up to Christopher Lee’s and, honestly, they wouldn’t deliver such epic metal, even if it’s only on three songs, with extended versions of each, bringing the EP total to 6.  Honestly, I hope I can rock half this hard at his age, but, also, I hope I could capture the epic feeling he captures in these tracks, now.  Now, granted, there’s a lot of hero worship here, and it’s not the best metal album released, this year, but come on – Christopher Lee!

Sabaton – Heroes

Completely over the top and, honestly, would you have it any other way?!  This album exemplifies “power metal” and is done with typical German precision.  I found the album very rigid and unyielding and I doubt Sabaton would have it any other way.  A very well produced album that just gets, and keeps, the blood and adrenaline pumping as each song marches on, relentless, forward to the final note.  Again, everything that is “power metal” is “Heroes,” and Sabaton brings it, without question.  Did I mention over the top?  Check ‘em out!

Marty Friedman – Inferno

Taking a break from J-Pop and being a metal god in Japan, Marty delivers an album that is typical Marty – just a bit off-kilter and completely mind-blowing.  Featuring myriad guest stars, the one that Cacophony fans will gravitate towards was his collaboration with Jason Becker.  It doesn’t disappoint.  There are exotic scales, arpeggiated runs, blistering runs and sumptuous acoustic lines.  This is a most excellent offering by a most excellent musician and I heartily recommend picking this one up!

Arch Enemy – War Eternal

Featuring a new singer, the band doesn’t miss a step, with driving rhythms, blistering solos and ferocious vocals.  This is a solid offering and more inspired than the last, bringing a tighter focus and delivery.  There are, also, some catchier tunes that will have you humming and that’s something that’s a little new for AE, but, you know – they are still solid tracks and still demand a good proper headbang.  Overall, I enjoyed this as a proper Arch Enemy release and they did themselves proud.  It’s definitely worth picking up, if you haven’t already!   

Mastadon – Once More ‘Round the Sun

It’s weird. I’d never really listened to these fellas, before, remaining content to think of a Mastadon as an extinct fuzzy elephant-like creature from the mists of history.  Well, then…imagine my joy at picking this disc up!  Thundering rhythms of pacydermal-esque pounding driving suitably progressive riffing with insistent and slightly-Prong-ish vocals.  This album was a really happy surprise and while being in the running for album of the year, already takes the “most colorful and beautiful album cover of the year.”  It’s just really cool that the music contained therein matched the cover.  An excellent offering well worthy of your consideration.

Vintersorg – Naturbål

Another band I hadn’t really checked out prior to this release and one that, because of this album, has garnered further investigation.  Falling under the category of “folk-viking-black metal,” they acquit themselves nicely with actual catchy hooks, excellent harmonies and melodies that bely the “black metal” label.   This is a fairly well-mixed album with good separation of vocals and guitars.  I just wished for more bass and drums more evenly.  That said, it’s an album that will definitely get your horns up and there are enough angstroms for everyone! A very enjoyable album and one I recommend.

Hellyeah – Blood For Blood

This is a very high-energy album, packed with chunky riffing, pounding drumming, modern vocals and a mix to push them all into your face with as much as velocity as you’d expect from a band called “Hellyeah.”  Yet another band I didn’t pay much attention to, prior, I didn’t really have any expectations going in – I simply knew Vinnie Paul was on the skins…  Overall, this is a very XM-Radio friendly album with plenty of driving everything.  I enjoyed it, but the style isn’t my favorite, really, but then again, me and “mainstream metal” haven’t ever really been on the same page.  I’d say pick it up.

Tesla – Simplicity

OK, speaking of “mainstream metal” and being on the same page with my tastes, up until this album I had listened to *two* Tesla songs.  Ever.  So, it was with a bit of trepidation I picked this up.  I’ll go on record, now, I’m not sure I’m on the same page, yet…although this is considered, “hard rock.”  It’s a well-mixed album, though rather treble-heavy for my taste (I think there’s a confusion between “bright” and “treble”), but it suits the band pretty well.  That said, this isn’t really my cup of tea.  At all.  It’s very listenable, don’t get me wrong, but this is too …not metal… for me. If you’re a fan of Tesla, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the album. 

Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls

Not always immediately in the running for “album of the year” when they release, Judas Priest is, this time around.  “Redeemer of Souls” is exactly what a Priest fan wanted and needed, this time around, with a lot of pummeling drums, crunchy riffing, harmonized soloing and Rob doing what Rob does – iconic vocals ranging from growl to scream.  The one thing I did noticed about this album, right away, is that there are songs that would fit on albums from almost every era of Judas Priest’s long and storied career.  I’m not 100%sold on the mix – there are some tonal inconsistencies across the songs, mainly in guitar tone – but it also feels like everything was done with intent.  This is a very deliberate and focused album and will leave you with a very satisfied feeling.  If it weren’t for a couple of other releases, this year, this would have been the top pick in the “album of year” running. 

Overkill – White Devil Armory

I’ve listened to Overkill since “Taking Over” and, honestly, they sound as intense and focused and “Overkill-y” as they have as they have in a long time.  Blitz sounds as angry and intense and in no way tired as he sometimes sounded on the last offering.  The rhythm section is just full bore and driving forward with no regard of personal safety.  All in all, this is a solid, solid album that just shreds from the first note of “Armory” until the last note of “In the Name.”  They’ve outdone themselves on this album and delivery the thrash metal you have come to know and love from these fellas.  An exceptional album and one well worth picking up.

Ill Niño – Till Death, La Familia

Classified as “nu-metal,” I’ve given them sparing listenings of the years and still find them kind of bland.  This album didn’t do a whole lot to change my mind.  It’s actually a very sonically pleasing album, mixed very well, if on the quiet side (thank you for not participating in the “loudness war!!”).  That said, it’s, to me, a bunch of staccato, alternating rhythms, vocals switching between decent clean and angry shouting and a use of profanity that made me want to mail them a rhyming dictionary and thesaurus.  Seriously, the “F-word” doesn’t make you sound more emphatic…  At any rate, if you’re a fan of “nu-metal,” which I am not, this might do it for you.  As for me, not so much.

Eluveitie – Origins

Infusing folk with metal brings lots of bands, and Eluveitie has always been a standout at meshing the two.  This album is a little different from previous efforts, bringing a bit more aggression to the game this time around.  The album still teems with whistles, accordions, pipes, folk drumming and harmonized vocals and brings with it some excellent music.  It’s an enjoyable album and I recommend it to all fans of folk metal.

Unisonic – Light of Dawn

As a fan of Michael Kiske, I was looking forward to seeing what he and his band could do to wow me.  Well, the orchestral “Venite 2.0” builds to a climax then trails into driving double-bass drums and the power metal we know and love from the former Helloween singer.  The vocals are vintage Kiske and this album, thankfully, doesn’t sound 100% like a Helloween album, but definitely borrows heavily from the sound forged by the German metallers.  This album gives the power metal fan everything they could want.  I enjoyed this disc a lot and have no hesitation recommending it.

Opeth – Pale Communion

Pioneers in the black/gothic metal world, this album is about as far removed from their first few releases as you can get.  Well, maybe not AS FAR, but pretty darned far, as this album feels like what would happen if The Who and King Crimson had a three-way with the Canadian band Paradise Lost (not to be confused with the goth metallers of the same name…).  It’s an interesting, textured, churning, flowing album that has some really neat music.  It’s just not what I was expecting, but then again, that’s kind of their thing, isn’t it?  So, with that, I dig the album, it’s not just not quite the “metal” album I was hoping for.

In Flames – Siren Charms

Speaking of bands not delivering what I was expecting, In Flames seemed to soften up a bit on the previous release, so I was expecting more of the same.  Actually, “Siren Charms” is a pretty heavy album. It’s not quite on par with their earlier releases, but they’ve grown and matured and are providing the listener with a pretty decent variety of music.  Now, there’s a shift where what used to be screamy vocals with occasional clean, we now have mostly clean with the screamy vocals relegated, for the most part, to choruses.  That’s OK.  It works.  I enjoyed this album a bunch and that was after an initial reaction of “what?!” so, it grew on me.  If you haven’t checked it out, do so.

Cannibal Corpse – A Skeletal Domain

So, I’ve never really listened to these fellas because the vocals just weren’t my thing.  After seeing Alex Webster on tour with Conquering Dystopia, I decided to see what was up with his normal band.  This is a monstrous album.  I’ve heard complaints that it’s “boring,” or “same ol’ CC.”  If it’s this intense, in your face and, well, brutal, wouldn’t that be a good thing?  The mix is thick, but not muddled – another reason I usually give death metal a miss – and every musician shines.  The album isn’t for the casual metal fan…if you’re not into death metal, though, this could be a decent album on which to jump in.  The musicianship is spot on and the vocals are suitably death-y.  I actually enjoyed this album a LOT. 

Evergrey – Hymns For the Broken

I like Everygrey a lot and was really looking forward to this release.  I was not disappointed.  A pristine mix gives us the music with clarity, allowing the drums to drive well situated under crisp guitars and punchy bass, all fitting nicely underneath strong, clean vocals.  It’s not earth-shattering inasmuch as it’s very much an Everygrey album, but it is focused, driven and musically excellent, which makes this a very easy album to listen to.  Now, you can pick up on the heightened emotion that went into the recording process, remembering misgivings about even recording another album.  It’s an intensity, and energy, but it enhances rather than detracts from the performances on the album.  I, for one, am very glad this album came about and am looking forward to many more listens in the future.

Sanctuary – The Year The Sun Died

Waiting for this album for a million years may have made it overhyped in my mind, that whole expectation exceeding reality thing.  It didn’t.  My review of this album can be found here: 
https://kon16ov.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/review-sanctuary-the-year-the-sun-died/

So, here’s the bottom line for me — this is an exquisite example of a band “growing up.”  It’s not 1989 Sanctuary, it’s 2014 Sanctuary, and it really works for me.  It’s not “The Nevermore Replacement Project” or “Warrel’s New Solo Project, Part II,” it’s Sanctuary, and from the opening notes of “Arise and Purify” to the tailing fadeout of “The Year the Sun Died,” this album is solid, well-paced, well played and well executed.  It’s also, for me, the album of the year for 2014.  

Exodus – Blood In, Blood Out

So, Dukes is out, Zetro’s back in.  Will it be seamless?  Will it be like Tempo?  Will it melt your face?  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Even sporting a couple of notable guest appearances – Kirk Hammett and Chuck Billy – this is a 100% pure Exodus album and is thoroughly enjoyable.  The boys put together 12 tight tracks mixed just shy of the threshold of pain, just like they like it.  This is an excellent album to drown out everything, and I do mean everything, around you and you can lose yourself in some brutal, tightly executed trash metal.  If you haven’t picked this up, I recommend it, highly.

Amaranthe – Massive Addictive

The three-headed vocals are back with a higher-energy, less goth-y offering that, from the first beat drop, soars.  The mix is quite compressed, but not a point where we’re clipping, but everything sounds tight and a little thin, especially on the higher vocals, but part of that is the synth zipping around in the same register.  That said, musically, it’s tight, as well.  It’s an enjoyable disc and there are some catchy hooks contained herein.  My only complaint comes back to the mix which, while feeling dense, also feels thin – I’m missing the bottom end to carry everything home.  Still, a good effort well worthy of giving a spin in the ol’ player.

Einherjer – Av Oss, For Oss

I know I’ve been talking about mixes a lot, but Einherjer is a band where I just kind of forgive and move on.  This album is no different than their previous efforts in that regard – it sounds like it was recorded on a tight budget in a small studio where they were more concerned with getting tight, churning, roiling Norse black metal to the fans without worrying that it sounds a bit like recordings from the early- to mid-90s.  This is a solid album – good musicianship and songwriting giving you exactly what you expect from Einherjer and a little more(SOLOS!  Like, bluesy solos!).  I just wish it had a little more definition all around and a little less reverb on the vocals.  That said, it’s still an album I recommend without hesitation.

Devin Townsend – Z2

Ziltoid’s back and Devin brings the story to life with amazingly dense, yet crisp and clear, mixes making sure you don’t miss a thud from the drum, arpeggiation on the guitar or snide remark from our undercaffienated alien overlord.  This is a fun album with some amazing musicianship.  It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, seeing as it’s Devin and he’s not always on the same wavelength with the rest of us.  That said, it’s impossible to deny the talent, skill and perseverance that went into crafting this album.  It flat out rocks in places and in others just lures you in with the lush soundscapes.  The humorous interjections help carry along the plot and keep the mood light while the music tells the story.  It’s a great album and I recommend checking it out, as well as its predecessor.  Do it!  Ziltoit commands it!   

OK…So, here’s the thing – I’m running out of steam and running out of time for “The Year in Metal” to still be kind of relevant, so I’m going to give you a quick hit list of excellent metal that you should check out. 

  • Scythia – “…of Conquest” (VERY fun)
  • Rodorigo y Gabriela – “9 Dead Alive” (Not strictly metal, but DAMN)
  • Dark Forest – “The Awakening” (Solid power metal)
  • Sister Sin – “Black Lotus” (Good straight-forward hard rockin’…rock!)
  • Falconer – “Black Moon Rising” (Putting the “power” in Power Metal)
  • Miles to Perdition – “Blasphemous Rhapsody”  (technical death metal; decent mix)
  • Horsehunter – “Caged in Flesh” (doom metal el grande)
  • Halcyon Way – “Conquer” (Excellent musicianship)
  • Hatriot – “Dawn of the New Centurion” (Not as focused as the first, but still a blistering album)
  • Allegaeon – “Elements of the Infinite” (excellent technical album)
  • Kontrust – “Explositive” (Weird and unashamed, but the musicianship to back it up)
  • Veritus Maximus – “Glaube un Wille” (fun and German…reminds me of Boese Onkelz)
  • Triosphere – “The Heart of the Matter” (excellent release)
  • Cripper – “Hyena” (Hard driving metal)
  • Meshuggah – “The Ophidian Trek” (Thunderous tech-prog metal)
  • Ten Masked Men – “Revenge of the Ten Masked Men” (Just damned fun!)
  • Temple of Dagon – “Rituals of the Deep” (decent material, needs to be remixed and remastered…seriously)
  • Pentakill – “Smite and Ignite” (straightforward metal, mostly…good stuff)
  • Lothloeryen – “Some Ways Back and More” (Tolkein-metal…not bad)
  • Primordial – “Where Greater Men Have Fallen” (fantastic album hampered by overcompression)
  • CHON – “Woohoo!” (Just wonderful musicianship and whimsical and check them out!)

That’s 2014 in Metal according to Phil. I know there were more releases out there and by some fairly mainstream bands, but mainstream has never been my thing, and I’m not made of money…  It was a very good year.  I’m excited to see what 2015 brings but in the meantime, I’ve been left with a lot of REALLY solid releases.  Hopefully, this will have some bands you’ve not heard of and you’ll check them out, just as I did, this year. 

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