Metallica – “Hardwired … To Self-Destruct”

The last time Metallica released a studio album, George W. Bush was still in office.  This release will precede President Donald J. Trump by mere weeks.  So what, right?  Well…it is *8* years.  We were given “Death Magnetic” and we, the Metallica faithful, were mostly sated.  There were production (*mastering*) problems that squashed dynamics and prompted several versions of “remixed/mastered/EQ’d” from the Guitar Hero III stems.  Much better.  So, we come back to today – the official release and while the vinyl hasn’t arrived at the door, the videos links have arrived in the email box.  I did a song-by-song deconstruction of “St. Anger” when it came out, but, sadly, it’s been lost to the mists of history – even can’t find it.  So, I thought I’d do that with this one, the new one, the shiny one, the one where the first three singles gave Metallica fans around the world hope that there might be a return to their thrash roots.  Let’s do this.

The Songs

01 – “Hardwired”

Churning.  A snare that sounds like a snare – that’s a positive.  Very punky vibe, but with enough chugging to make a metalhead happy.  Nice delay on the vocal – well placed and not overbearing.  Nice chorus. The solo breakdown feels like a solo and the post-solo section is solid.  I dig it.  I’m also digging the double-bass.  *Finally.* This has a good vibe to it.  I’m enjoying it a lot.  The slowdown at the end is really nice.  Good song.

02 – “Atlas, Rise”

Decent enough intro. It’s reminding me of the punk-infused stuff we used to get in the early-80s.  Decent riffing.  The vocals are good.  Pre-chorus is a not bad, but serves it’s purpose – it feeds naturally into the chorus.  Chugging is pretty good, lead fill keeps from getting overly repetitive sounding.  This feels NWOBHM-ish and I’m digging it.  The solo starts off like something from “Load.” OK – better movement but pretty wah’d up. However, the harmonized solo is really nice – reminds me of 7th Son-era Iron Maiden.  The ending is solid.  Good song. I can dig it.

03 – “Now That We’re Dead”

Mid-tempo chugging.  I can dig it. Even the drum fills seem to work.  Slow to build, though.  Reminiscent of mid-80s hard rock.  Very simple verse – it works.  Wow – the pre-chorus feels so very 1987.  Nice.  I’m trying to think of who this reminds me of.  Kind of like some of the mid-tempo stuff Armored Saint did around that time.  This isn’t a bad thing.  The chorus is a bit creepy, but nice riff underneath.  It’s keeping things very simple, and it’s working.  The song is growing on me.  The solo is pretty solid – not TOO wah-y with good movement.  Ooh – interesting post-solo crunch.  It’s like what would have happened if “Outlaw Torn” had more bite.  The ending…hmmm…pretty solid.  Another good song.  Cool.

04 – “Moth Into Flame”

Nice intro into fantastic chuggy riffing.  Where’s this been the last couple of albums?  Nice movement under the verse which is also pretty solid.  Pre-chorus bliss!  Really enjoying the riffing. Now that’s a catchy as hell chorus! The guitars are constantly moving.  Nice!  Back to the verse and it’s just got good chunky riffing.  Man.  Well structured song.  It’s funny how it almost *feels* mid-tempo, but sure as hell isn’t.  Oooh, nice breakdown.  Down picking heaven.  Solid bridge that feeds into the solo.  Not a bad solo, either – THIS sounds like KRK.  Nice re-entry riff and double-bass thunder.  Easily my favorite song, so far.  Just beastly riffing riding you off into a crescendo ending.  Excellent song.

05 – “Dream No More”

Doom-y.  Sluggish, but not plodding.  Meaty doom riffs.  Verse…interesting harmony.  Sounds like “The Cure” but is a boatload more listenable.  Pre-chorus is pretty decent.  Oooh.  The chorus *chugs*.  There’s no other way to describe it. So far, the chorus is the the best part.  Still doomy.  Huge sound, though – definitely a good thing.  Middle is pretty good leading to the solo.  Decent solo – interesting slower section, gaining nice harmonization.  Building to something – the sludgy, sloggy chugging.  Cthulhu imagery throughout is always a good thing.  This song will probably grow on me. Right now, it’s a good song.

06 – “Halo on Fire”

Nice harmonized intro.  Harkening back to 1987, it feels like.  Pulling back into a light acoustic trot.  Verse is sung nicely and builds.  The chorus is a little jarring, but gets bigger and is pretty good.  Nice break.  Good tone on the solo – fits the vocals.  The pre/chorus is growing on me.  Middle breakdown riff is nice and chunky.  The bridge is pretty good even with two parts; they work, I think.  Nice chunky riffing after the 2nd bridge.  This sends us into the solo, which starts with some nice harmonization and then pulls to the middle and isn’t too bad.  With the solo over, we riff and then back to a short acoustic break.  Solo 2 – almost sounds like Het’s tone. Nice movement into what was bridge 2 and now a slowly building solo that is over a nice galloping riff.  The ending is really taking off – I like it.  The song ends…and it’s a good one.  I like the movement within the song.

07 – “Confusion”

Marching – which I think is the point.  Crunchy.  It is nice to have a snare that sounds like a snare, again.  Ooooh – fun riffing going on, here.  Slows down to a mid-tempo.  Nice vocals in the verse, and gives way to the chugging which, in turn, gives way to the chorus.  Interesting. Nice transition back to the chugging.  Nice little solo before a solid bridge. Really touching on the PTSD aspect – heavy.  Good transition back to the chorus.  Bridge 2 is driving home the PTSD with a frenetic staccato bit of riffing.  Moves into a neat section that finishes off and drops us into the solo.  It’s not a bad solo – it really conveys a “barely in control” vibe that works.  That is just a sick riff.  Ending  on the marching.  Solid song.  I like it a lot.

08 – “Manunkind”

Acoustic meandering – nice bass working underneath.  Aaaand – heavy!  Mid-tempo?  Slogger?  It’s kind of giving a vibe of both.  Nice groove.  Sort of disjointed riff under the vocals which have a sort of urgency going on.  Feels southern rock-ish, but with a heaver touch.  I like the harmonization – I’m a sucker for a good harmonized vocal line.  Breakdown time.  The bridge is even more urgent, the exaggerated delay helps it out.  Not too bad.  Do we call this bridge 2?  It’s decent enough and leads to the solo which, after started kind of slowly, becomes a sort of wah assault.  It reigns it in to feed back to the bridge 2 thingo.  Very southern groove.  Reminds me a bit of “Ronnie.”  The ending is a repetition of “Faith in man-un-kind,” until it ends.  Not too bad.  This feels like one I’ll have to listen to more to get into.

09 – “Here Comes Revenge”

Definitely setting up a mood, here.  Feels dirty and sludgy.  Gives way to a pretty solid riff.  The solid riff becomes riffier and has a decent hook to it.  Dirty drums, slightly dirty guitar, interesting verse, leads into the what I’m assuming is the pre-chorus which makes good use of riff #3.  Decent chorus with a sort of stop and go thing that ends nicely enough.  Back to the verse.  I like the transitions.  Decent movement in the song.  It’s not dragging.  The hook-y riff gives way to a mid-tempo crescendo that leads into the solo.  Nice riffing underneath.  A more restrained solo that works well.  Galloping towards the end with the hook-y riff with some nice double-bass work underneath with the dirty, wah-soaked guitars we heard in the intro.  A solid song.  I dig it.

10 – “Am I Savage?”

Starting slow with clean tone and understated bass and drums.  Gets dirty quick.  Not bad – building towards a really sludgy riif.  This feels like something Sabbath – mid ‘90s Sabbath – would churn out.  And we now just hopped into an interesting off-tempo walking/talking part.  The chorus is decent.  Returning to the doomy, sludgy riff.  Definitely a sloggy feel, but not draggy.  The off-kilter pre-chorus is disconcerting which, I’m fairly certain was the point. Honestly, it has a “Loverman” vibe to it but, thankfully, is a vastly more interesting song.  Oooh – sludge.  The breakdown leading to the solo is chewy as hell.  Nice solo work – it’s a nice counterpart to the riffing underneath.  As it heads to the end, it chugs along, and I do mean chugs.  Pretty good – I definitely to listen to it more.

11 – “Murder One”

Nice clean tone interrupted by a fairly urgent heavy interruption.  Main riff is pretty fluid and gritty.  Interesting – the verse and vocals are pretty solid.  Pre-chorus? Bridge? Chorus?  Not sure.  Leads back to the verse. This takes me back to 1989.  It’s got a good vibe.  We’ll call that the pre-chorus – it compliments the chorus well.  Oh, my.  Well, hello, Kirk. A jarring solo, with very little transition.  It settles down and then feeds back into the pre-/chorus.  A decent hard rock groove feel.  I’ll have to listen to this more to get more of a feel for it.  It doesn’t feel as strong as most of the songs, but it’s not bad. We shall see!

12 – “Spit Out The Bone”

Frenetic intro – drums, bass and guitars chugging along and after a brief pause uses that riff to take us to a bit of machine gun-ish riffing.  Interesting melody interspersed.  Now it’s a homogenized, sick riff.  Hello, angry verse!  Barked lyrics with speed chugging underneath.  I really dig that main riff.  Need to harmonize it, though.  Man, this is moving.  There is a definite urgency, but not haphazard.  Breakdown to Rob’s solo. Cool.  Leads back to some more gymnastic riffing.  Digging the bridge and here we go into KRK land – the first part of the solo is kind of like the rest in terms of wah, but churns down to a nice slower, melodic solo.  The middle section is really nice.  New riff – solid.  Slowing down a touch with some chugging. I can dig it.  Slower still chugging.  What’s it building up to?  ‘cause it’s building!  Ooooh – channeling some of the Kill ‘em All energy, this solo is much more satisfying to me.  Enough old and new Kirk working together to make for a solo that works.  Frantic chugging and barking vocals – angry Metallica is good Metallica.


Wow.  I’m a bit drained.  That was a killer ending to a solid effort that had many more high points than low.  Actually, come to think of it, I don’t really recall there being anything that could be considered a “low.”  To be completely honest, “Am I Savage” might be the weak track on the album, but even there – if that’s your “weak one,” I’d say that’s not too shabby, at all.

The riffing

There is plenty of riffing to be had.  Wow.  From open to close, there’s no shortage of chunky, chewy, ripping riffs that all work well with the songs and don’t feel forced.  What I mean is that some of the “speed riffing” on “St. Anger” seems like it was put in with the intent of showing us they were still heavy.  It felt like they were trying too hard.  This?  This sounds like a natural, organic album where there riffs don’t feel forced.  Even some of the riffing on “Death Magnetic” felt a little shoehorned.  Not here.

Review / Summary

I’ve been having a hard time NOT jamming to this album.  From the opening notes of “Hardwired” to the last shimmer of reverb at the end of “Spit Out The Bone,” it’s nonstop.  It’s funny – I read some comments, somewhere (I can’t remember where…) that the album had four ballads.  I’ll have to check my impressions of the songs, above, but I’m pretty sure there’s not a single ballad on this album.  There’s a dynamic that offers a good balance of “acoustic-y intro” to “all out thrashing,” so that might have been what they were talking about.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that this is the most consistent and solid album since, if I’m to be completely honest, “The Black Album.”

What about production?  I gave Metallica endless amounts of crap for something that wasn’t their fault, last album.  “Death Magnetic” was butchered in mastering to a point where all dynamism was flattened out and it was a wall of sound with no nuance.  What do we have this time around?  Well, it’s not mastered to death, thankfully.  Now, when the first three singles hit, I noticed there wasn’t much by way of “air.”  I had hoped that it was like the “The Day That Never Comes” where the album version was much more alive than the single/video release that just seemed dry and brittle.  Well, “Hardwired…To Self-Destruct” is much, much better sonically.  My only complaint is the aforementioned “air.”  It’s still pushed pretty hard and you can hear the compressors groaning under the might of the riffs.  That said – it’s so much better.

So?!  Was it worth the wait?  Eight years is a darned long time.  I’ll admit that really pushed the expectations high.  I wasn’t thrilled with “Lords of Summer,” but it wasn’t bad, so there was hope.  Then the date getting pushed back and pushed back.  But, it’s here. It’s tight.  It’s solid.  It’s a *Metallica* album.  It’s not “Master II” nor should it be.  This is a more mature thrash but there is thrash to be had.  So, I’ll say it’s worth the wait, but implore the fellas not to make us wait this long, next time around.


Chris Caffery – Your Heaven is Real

Chris Caffery – Your Heaven is Real

It’s funny…I remember seeing Chris on the “Gutter Ballet” tour and he just kind of hung back a little and let Criss do his thing.  From that point on, though, I’ve watched him grow as a guitarist, musician and producer.  His most recent work is something that we saw come to life through myriad postings on Facebook and it was an amazing process to watch unfold.  That’s kind of why I have resisted writing a review, to this point.  I had just finished producing an album, myself, so watching the process here, knowing what goes into it from a recording, producing, mixing and mastering stand-point, I have a different approach than I used to.  It kind of becomes a little club (you, the artist and thousands of his closest friends Smile ) watching a project grow and come closer and closer to fruition and wanting so badly for everything to pan out perfectly and become a sort of cheerleader.

That’s why *I* felt a little too close to it, even though I, really, had nothing to do with other than a few posts of encouragement along the way.  Then something changed.  I read a review.  Now, it wasn’t a horrible review, mostly.  It’s one of those that looks like it comes from a place of expectation that may or may not have been in line with what the point or purpose of the album actually was.  I feel a little sorry for the reviewer inasmuch as the full fury of Chris’ fans have been unleashed upon him.  For the most part, this is because the reviewer barely reviewed the music and, instead, chose to review Chris, himself.  That’s not how reviews work, really.  That said, as reviewers usually do, he brought it upon himself.  This is because no matter what your opinion is, someone will disagree.  Additionally, when you go after a person a lot of people care about, they’re going to push back, hard.  With that in mind – I’m going to talk about what I know with Chris, my perspective on the album and, towards the end, the music.

I’m not going to address much more of the other review, really, save for a couple points.

So, first and foremost, this is an 80s metal album.  Sure, there are some modern aspects to it, stylistically, but it conjures up — without sounding overly like — Savatage and Dr. Butcher with ease, and shows a lot of influence from those bands and from the songwriting he was exposed to, contributed to and learned from.  So, here’s where the divide, I believe, comes in.  I *love* hearing 80s metal musicians producing 80s metal.  I just do.  I loved a band from Richmond called Claude Zircle for exactly that reason — there were no pretentions.  They played their 80s metal hearts out, and that’s exactly what “Your Heaven Is Real” does.  Chris isn’t trying to win the nu-metal crowd.  He’s not looking for the prog-metal crowd.  He’s looking for people who enjoy honest, solid, metal.  In this, he delivered, in spades.  There’s something for every metalhead, here — there’s so much groove on this disc, it’s quite tasty.  If you don’t feel the 80s screaming through in “Just Fine,” I don’t know what to tell you.  The album, itself, also has a consistency across it — the tone, the energy, the love, the effort.

It’s funny, though, because it’s at this point in a lot of reviews where the comments start veering into “you’re a fanboy” or equally derisive terms that basically are implying that because you honestly like something and have good things to say about it, you’re a kiss-ass.  That always baffles me.  Me?  You get what you get.  If I like it, I say so, if I don’t, I say so.

Another aspect in which I felt a little too close to really review the album, objectively, was knowing the stories behind a lot of the songs, as revealed by Chris over the creation of the album via Facebook.  Once I know what something’s about, and how deeply personal these things are, and how much of an artist gets exposed by “putting himself out there” in a way that few people ever know — how the hell do you criticize that?  Even on the album I was just working on, it was much easier to be critical, as a producer, about musical and production choices, when I didn’t know that it was a song, for example, about the brutal hole left in the artist’s heart after the untimely death of his brother.  It’s at that point that it becomes the artist’s complete game – even as producer and mixer, there are things about which you just accept you have no say.  The same falls, for me, into that realm, here.  “Your Heaven Is Real” isn’t some attempt at a catchy chorus (have I mentioned that the song *crushes* and the chorus will get stuck in your head for a while?) without substance, but a very personal revelation about a pretty damned scary situation and brings, to me, two interpretations of the song that aren’t disparate — as a result of the experience, there’s a new appreciation of what is an isn’t real to Chris when it comes to the afterlife, and, really, it’s more of an affirmation and uplifting message than we’ve gotten from Chris, previously.  To me, that’s awesome — he’s in a happier place, which is exceedingly obvious if you follow him on Facebook.  Chris has always worn his emotions on his sleeve and produced music from the heart, and this is no different — something for which *I’m* grateful, though, I do understand how some folks aren’t always comfortable listening to songs that aren’t just about political rants, sex drugs and rock’n’roll, or any of the impersonal, banal topics we’ve come to expect in recent years.  That said, I’m in no position to criticize personal experience and expression for reasons I’ve mentioned before.

Oh, but make no mistake — Chris has socio-political rants, too, but there are more songs, here, about new and more personal topics, and are addressed with the same lack of compromise as “Pissed Off” though handled with more experience, wisdom and maturity.  What?  We all mature as we get older and, in this case, it just means the music is growing, proportionately, with Chris.  That’s not a bad thing.

I will address a comment from the review within one of the points from the review I wish to focus on, just because it’s something I didn’t have an appreciation for prior to last winter, when I was in a similar situation.  So, here’s the thing the review stated, “While the mix is clear, the overall sound is muddy and not sharp enough…” We’ll pair that with one of the comments on the review that stated, “…sounds like it was recorded on a PC.”  Here’s the thing — in several ways it probably was – so what?  There’s a lot of the home studio that is now piped through the PC to record and from what I’ve seen of Chris’ studio, I have no reason to believe any different.  Even in a larger studio, again, the trend is to pipe everything through a PC. That said, having just produced an album that was recorded in its entirety on a Mac (so, kind of PC…) and mixed/mastered on my studio system, I have a new appreciation for what went into this album.  I know how bloody hard it is to get a good, consistent sound that sounds good on your monitors, in your car, on your phone, and so on, and I also know what happens when you either don’t have the right monitors, the right angle on the monitors and the right distance from the monitors, ignoring the fact, for the moment, as to whether the room is treated, or not.

So, with that in mind, there are parts that I, as someone who has just spent time mixing songs until my eyes glazed over and my ears were so fatigued, and I dreamt of the songs for weeks, recognized right off the hop while listening to the album.  I believe it was on “Why” that I thought, “Ah, the monitors were <so>” when mixing the acoustics, as there were a couple of spots where they came hard through the back-side of the mix, on the sides a bit louder than probably intended, but was probably the result of a lot of late night sessions, you know – when pouring his heart and soul into this project.  It’s one of those things that I don’t think I would have given a second thought to if I didn’t have this stupid new quasi-curse of listening to albums like a flippin’ mixer/producer.  That said, “Why” is probably my favorite track on the album.

It’s kind of like once you’ve run your first kitchen as a chef, eating out is a whole different experience where you’re all at once over critical of everything and how you would do it differently, and here’s the thing — it doesn’t change the experiences of the people around you.  The real joy of a chef is peeking out from behind the swinging door and seeing someone take a bite of a dish you put your soul into and watching their eyes roll back and that “Mmmmmmmm…”  There’s nothing like it.

Likewise, as an artist, watching people start to close their eyes, bob their heads in rhythm and get taken to someplace else for a while through the music, that’s what it’s all about.  How they get there is subjective, and that’s I think what we’ve run into, here, with the review’s mention of “clear” yet “muddy and not sharp enough.”  One thing you learn pretty quickly when mixing an album is that your ears adjust.  So, if you’re working on a song, the small changes get absorbed into the song.  Try this — if you listen to music with your EQ flat, boost your treble up for about 5 minutes.  Now, change it back.  It sounds weird — even dull and kind of lifeless, doesn’t it?  Then, however, after another 5 minutes, it’s the “new normal,” again, and it just is how it is.  I would wager some of this happened not only when producing this album but when listening to it, as well.  I know it came into play on the one I worked on.  Good gravy, it did.  At any rate, the point is this — the mix is clean.  You can pick out every ingredient — the drums (Brian Tichy is absolutely on point), the bass, the guitars, the vocals, the spices (some synths, some choir-y parts).  There are times that the bass eats the kick, a little, but that’s also something that comes into play with this observation — this, like any album, depends upon that on which you’re listening to it.  In my case, I listened on my studio rig through my monitor speakers.  I’m very used to the tone on these, now, so I know their tendencies and I also have tried to keep them as flat as possible, response-wise.

So, this album is “flat,” and what I mean by that is that it’s not jacked one way or another, not over-bassy and not treble-heavy, and it is definitely not “lifeless.”  It has a good balance.  Now, there are places where there’s a little mud right in the 120-500Hz range where ALL the instruments want to play, but that is, to me, to be expected in metal, and, honestly, in pretty much everything short of piano concertos or pan flutes.  So, the clatter about “muddy and not sharp enough” really comes down to this — poke your EQ, sparky.  I know that when producing, there’s that goal that you produce an album that won’t “need” EQ-doinking, but reality comes crashing in when you realize every human on this planet has not only different tastes, but different ears that are more sensitive to different frequencies than others and, really, in order to make everyone happy, everyone’s going to have to put in a little effort.  Hmm…That came out funny, but I stand by it.

If you think a recording sounds a little dull, it may be one of a billion variables, but one of the easiest fixes, if you think a recording is muddy, is to poke the mid-high and high EQ sliders up a bit and maybe even scoop the mids a little.  I mean, growing up listening to metal on my little walkman with the 3-band EQ on the side, I adjusted it for just about every album I ever played in that thing, and I played a LOT of metal.  So, I guess my point here is that if you’re thinking it’s a bit muddy, tweak a bit, because the overall production is tight.  There are some places where it’s a little *too* flat, for my taste, but I’d rather have it flat and be able to adjust it to sound good to my ears than have it so jacked to one extreme or the other I a way that I can’t adjust it to my preference.  Those spots are also few and far between and don’t take away from the listening experience of the album.  It’s just something that, for better or worse, I pick up and hone in on, now, that I didn’t used to.

So, after all this, what do I think of that album?!  It’s a solid-ass effort from Chris that shows just how much he’s progressed as a musician and song-writer.  The songs are more involved, complex and produced with more dynamics and appreciation for white-spaces.  I appreciate the growth that’s gone into his vocals and, truly, he’s found his own voice and I dig it.  Again — 80s metal, man, 80s metal!  I enjoy the songs a lot.  I enjoy knowing the stories behind them.  I enjoy how the stories are told.  This album embodies what I wish more artists would try — honest, hard-working and just pure Chris.  Hmmm…I’m not saying other bands should try to be pure Chris, but try putting in the love and effort into their work.  It’s funny — the review that shall not be named inferred that Chris basically churned this out because he needed the money and some form of pity grab.  I have absolutely no idea where that came from.

For me, the standout tracks are the title track – a perfect, blistering opener – “Why,” “Hot Wheelz,” “I Never Knew” and “2-26-15,” which is elevated that much more if you know what that date means to Chris.  If you don’t, ask him.  That’s not to say that “Arm and a Leg” isn’t heavy as hell and well executed or that “Just Fine” isn’t a bad-ass jam that channels the 80s perfectly, or that there is any filler on this album.  It just means that those were the songs that I gravitated to, thus bringing this back to how subjective this all is.  I dig the album.  More to the point, I take the album as a whole – the effort, the late nights, the love and everything that goes into taking what’s in your heart and getting to unleash it on the world.  It’s the blistering solos, sure, but it’s also the person poured into it.  Take some time to get to know it and you won’t be disappointed.

In closing, “Your Heaven Is Real” is pure Chris and executed not flawlessly (though pretty close), but honestly — and it’s honestly a great album.

The Year in Metal 2014

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:

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.

Review – Sanctuary, “The Year The Sun Died”

Sanctuary, “The Year the Sun Died”

I first got into Sanctuary thanks to Headbanger’s Ball when “Future Tense” was making the rounds and managed to find both “Refuge Denied” and “Into the Mirror Black” at a local record store.  From there, we got Sanctuary’s demise, Nevermore’s rise, Nevermore’s demise and Sanctuary’s rise.  There’s a lot in between, there, and that’s oversimplifying a bit, but for our purposes, it will suffice.  Here’s the thing — there have been two constants in this whole timeline: Warrel Dane and Jim Shephard.  With that in mind, I feel the need to address something before we even get into the new album from Sanctuary, and it’s the elephant in the room.

No.  This does not sound like a Nevermore album.  Well, OK, it sounds a bit like a Nevermore album.  There are two songs in particular that sound like they could have come from the “Obsidian Conspiracy” sessions, just as there are a couple that sound like they could have come from the “Praises to the War Machine” sessions, just like there are a couple that sound like they could have come from the next sessions following “Into the Mirror Black.”  Think of it this way: it’s analogous to the Mercyful Fate/King Diamond duality.  Same singer, marginally different vocal deliveries (mainly falcetto), slightly different topics, different band.
So, that said, I approached this album as someone who was looking forward to hearing what these fellas could come up with after a long time apart with growth and maturity on all sides coming together.  I expected a solid album.  I was not disappointed.

Also, of importance to me — the album recording and release was pushed back a couple of times.  The part of me that was grumpy at the delays is also the part of me that is glad they did. I’m pretty sure that the album only benefitted from the delays because, as a whole, it sounds tight, polished, well thought out and cohesive — something I wished for with “The Obsidian Conspiracy,” which, to me, did not, in a number of ways.  So, with that in mind, let’s address the album.

My first, overall impressions start with the mix. It’s excellent.  The guitars are placed very well.  The drum tone is stellar.  The bass is a velvet thunder.  Warrel’s voice is spot on and sounding the best he’s sounded in years, you might even say reinvigorated.  The mix feels roomy with great tone and balance.  A super-sized hug to everyone involved in the production for not falling into the “loudness war” garbage, rather giving us a well-mixed, tonally balanced, roomy and sonically pleasing album.  What compression is used, is used well and there’s no clipping or brickwalling which, really and eternally, makes me happy.  Thank you, again, Zeuss, and anyone else who insisted on music being listenable.

There isn’t a weak track on the album.  From the onset of “Arise and Purify,” to the final notes of “The Year the Sun Died,” you’re given well-crafted, well-played metal that is all you would want from Sanctuary.  “Arise and Purify” is just immense and the delayed guitar section is hypnotizing.  A perfect opener to the album, it also delivers your first taste of how they were going to address the “Sanctuary Scream” with an older Warrel — and it really worked.  “Let the Serpent Follow Me” continues the momentum and chugs and weaves through a fun wah-soaked riff.  The ‘breakdown riff’ reminds me a lot of Arch Enemy and definitely conjures images of churning pit.

I’ll be honest — the first time I heard “Exitium (Anthem of the Living),” I wasn’t sold.  I don’t know why, it just didn’t jive with me for some reason.  I have gone 180 degrees and love this
song, deeply.  I don’t know if it’s because it sounds like Depeche Mode gone evil, or if the guitars just feel perfect, or if I’m just a sucker for the off-kilter-meets-all-out-thrash feel.
I don’t even mind the talking… something that I usually just kind of ignore.  Again, this went from a song I wasn’t sure about to one of my favorites on the album.

“Question Existence Fading” is a track that could have been written back in ’89 and brought to today’s feel.  The bridge is fantastic and reminds me a little of “Little Boy” (Metal Church) — and that’s most certainly a good thing as Warrel’s voice is harmonized perfect on the descent, this is definitely a solid track and works well as a transition right to “Low,” which has a “Praises” feel to it, sauntering, carefully, with the acoustic guitars interplaying with the electrics.  Definitely some early 90s feel to it, and a very well thought out song — good transitions and movement.

“Frozen” grinds forth a churning riff with a vocal line bludgeoning along dropping a sumptuous chorus that turns right around and zooms into a fun solo run that make this feel like an excellent nostalgia piece for Sanctuary fans wanting a logical follow up “ITMB.”  Look no further.

“One Final Day (Sworn to Believe)” is one of the songs I remembered from the “teaser” thing they did on youTube many moons ago.  It’s an interesting song musically and lyrically and sneaks up with a deceptively catchy chorus — not quite ear worm, but just a couple of words and they stick in there.  A solid song.

“The World is Wired” is a song that feels a little NM-ish, at first, but quickly secures its own identity and churns forward with solid riffing and a smart uses of breathing — the ends of each verse are well done. The song is put together very well and everything sounds excellent.  The mix on this song shines.

The song that surprised me, the most, on this album was, without a doubt, “The Dying Age.”  That said, I love it.  The layering going on is complex without becoming impenetrable and the vocals are spot on.  The movement and feel of the song is excellent and it works, for me.  Again, the off-time guitar under the verse wasn’t something I expected, but can certainly dig it.

The instrumental, “Ad Vitam Aeternam” is pretty cool and leads into the title track, fitting well. Segueing into the “The Year the Sun Died,” we get a very short acoustic intro/verse and into some heavy riffing during the pre- and chorus.  This song has an excellent feel to it and effective use of dynamics — the seamless sinusoidal back and forth between melodic and thrashy is well done and the overall song, from structure to composition to execution is spot on.  My only complaint with the song is the fade out — specifically, the timing…I wanted it to be longer than 5 and a half minutes, selfishly.

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.

Because I hate putting numbers to things, but it seems the social norm to do so, I will give this 9.5/10, for me.
The big knock, really, is that I wanted more which is sort of backwards, since one should be praised for leaving audiences wanting more, but since I’m the one who wants more and I know I’m not going to get it for a little while, it’s my point, and I’m taking one for making me wait…ok, fine…just a half-point.
I know the fellas will understand.

Animals As Leaders/Conquering Dystopia/CHON review–May 24th, 2014

Animals as Leaders

With Conquering Dystopia and Chon

With special guests Shores of Elysium and Novallo

May 24th, 2014 at Skully’s in Columbus, Ohio…

As sometimes happens, there are concerts that just demand you attend. This was one of those. In the interest of full disclosure, I went with the sole purpose of seeing Conquering Dystopia. The last time I saw Jeff Loomis play live was in 2006 with Nevermore on the “This Godless Endeavor” tour. So, with that in mind, I had heard of two bands and listened to one. Apologies to the other bands, including Animals as Leaders, as, again, I was purely interested in Conquering Dystopia. That said, this was an evening of discovery an enjoyment of excellent music.

The first act of the evening was Novallo. They were good, musically and vocally, and at times reminded me a lot of a more progressive Stabbing Westward. I enjoyed their set and they had a good presence. I will need to check out their music – available on, to be precise. It didn’t seem as though everyone was sold, though – I had to chuckle – I saw, in passing, a text message on someone’s phone that read “so much screaming.” To be fair, it was all on-key, which, trust me, can only be considered a good thing! Check them out on facebook, as well.

The next set of the evening was inflicted at the hands of Shores of Elysium and, believe me, only in the metal community can the adjective “inflict” be considered a positive, and it was. From the opening notes to the closing, it was a relentless infliction of choreographed mayhem and wonton obliteration of eardrum and spinal column alike – and I tend to think they wouldn’t have it any other way. To be honest, I had never heard of this local-ish (Delaware, Ohio) band and, equally honestly, that’s a shame for the local area. I wouldn’t mind seeing them again, though I might keep my aging, not-as-up-for-a-good-violent-pit-as-I-used-to-be, self along the periphery to enjoy the excellent musicianship that went along with brutal vocals. I had to laugh (as opposed to just a chuckle) when the vocals started, because I just thought, “you thought the LAST band screamed? Just wait…” The presence was good and those were some dreads on the bassist – and he had chops, to boot. The band was tight and I give them big props on winning me over not only with personality but with their music. You can find their stuff on iTunes or not to mention their facebook page.

Slight tangent – I’m too freaking old for pits, these, days, it would seem. That said, when did just being a wrecking ball and getting up a head of steam and plowing into unsuspecting patrons attempting to enjoy a show become acceptable? Maybe I’m just a stodgy curmudgeon, here, but dare I say I miss the circle pits?

A band that did not conjure pits was Chon, and that’s completely fine with me. I had heard of them, which was good, but I had no idea what their sound was like or really what to expect. I was completely disarmed with how down to earth and just, honestly good this band is. Both guitarists are technically excellent and without much by way of effects or “brutal riffery,” held the previously unruly audience in thrall with technical runs and solid musicianship backed by equally talented bandmates. I really enjoyed their state presence which, as I think I mentioned, was just disarmingly down to earth. The drums were right up front on the very intimate (read: cramped) stage, to a point where I could pick out the drum sound without amplification. All in all, this band is amazingly talented and very much well worth checking out. Just remember, they’re not your straight-up thrashing instrumental band – they remind me a lot of what would happen if Eric Johnson’s and Blues Saraceno’s music had a proggy lovechild. The cheeky nod to the Power Rangers was endearing, as well. I really, really enjoyed the set – such a pleasant surprise. You can check them out on facebook, iTunes or They are well worth looking into.

Since I mentioned the size of the stage, may I just say that this is probably the most intimate setting I’ve been in since the Little Giant Room back at Wabash. By “intimate,” I mean “reach out a touch someone” close to the musicians and the artists themselves having roughly 12 feet to work with from back wall to crazed fan. It also sports a diner in the front of the place that has excellent food that, if a little on the pricey side, delivers satisfaction. I can personally recommend the buffalo chicken philly. It works. Really. It was also cool to see just about every band member from each of the bands wander out into the diner for one reason or another. Anyway, small tangent about small stage-space aside, it’s time to get to the reason I was there.

Conquering Dystopia, for those unfamiliar is like the supergroup you’ve never heard of. While there are “supergroups” with Navarro or Slash or some of these other high-profile musicians, you’d be hard pressed to put together a better groups of “super” musicians than the collection of Jeff, Keith, Alex and Alex. Jeff Loomis’ pedigree is legendary, coming from prog-thrash-death-gasm Nevermore and having released a couple of solid solo albums. Keith Merrow has released three of his own albums and collaborated with Jeff on a number of product demo videos in addition to tons of his own. He is also a very tall individual. I just need to get that out there. Alex Webster is the bass force majeure hailing from Cannibal Corpse. If you can hang with a guy named “Corpsegrinder,” you are a worthy addition to this group. On the skins, you have Alex Rudinger from “The Faceless.” His winning personality and ability to turn your innards to jelly with his double-bass round out this group. With all this adulation, could they possibly live up to any expectations set before them?

Conquering Dystopia completely blew away my expectations and they were lofty expectations, indeed. They played the songs I wanted to hear in addition to three others. It seemed like a short-ish set, but considering they played ½ of the album, including the longer piece “Destroyer of Dreams,” that’s still a lot of music. The set consisted of “Prelude to Obliteration,” “Tethys,” “Ashes of Lesser Men,” “Inexhaustible Savagery,” “Kufra at Dusk,” and “Destroyer of Dreams.” I may have forgotten something or gotten something wrong. It happens. What also happened was an interesting phenomenon. The pit…it was the most interesting thing, other than the band, to observe. There was the same body flailing, but it would give way, midway through the songs, as they would suddenly remember they were in the presence of such awesome musicians that, perhaps, it would be well worth watching these guys jam, in their prime and with technical brilliance and sonic savagery (some might say, “inexhaustible…”). Watching each of these musicians, at the various points during the show, one just couldn’t help but be in awe.

Rudinger’s skill on the drums was masterful. Keith was just tall and making the impossible rhythms he and Jeff cooked up look effortless – something to see. Did I mention he makes it all look very easy? For the record, I have seen a lot of metal shows and I have never seen anyone tear it up on the bass with the skill and just…bombastic riffery that I witnessed with Alex Webster. This includes a lot of talented bassists, but after what I watched during “Ashes of Lesser Men,” they all take a bit of a back seat. Sorry, fellas… Then, there’s Jeff. Jeff Loomis’ stage presence is a different kind of presence. He just walks up the edge of the stage and is awesome, just by what he does with the guitar. There’s no need for an “ego ramp,” or weird poses or anything other than just playing the shredding leads he’s written with precision and an effortlessness that makes the guitarist in me cringe a little. It’s awesome to behold. I recommend it to any and everyone. You may not be a fan of metal music, but to see a musician and a master of the craft performing some of the most complicated, intricate and brutally heavy pieces of music in a way that is still amazing and beautiful….it’s still something to experience, and an experience I would recommend every time. This band is the real deal and one of the most talented groups I think you’ll find out there. It was a pleasure to see and I hope that they swing back through this way on another leg of the tour.

Animals as Leaders is an impressive three piece ensemble, to be sure. Even as insanely bright as the backdrop was, it couldn’t outshine the musicianship. I have never been a fan of the 8-string guitars, mainly from a “gear-geek” and “tone snob” standpoint, but I must say I was duly impressed with Tosin Abasi’s tone, live. I’d seen some videos on the web and as such videos tend to be, didn’t do nearly the justice to the tone that they should.  This was remedied live. Both Tosin and Javier Reyes are exemplary musicians in full control of their instruments to prove without a doubt they are masters at their craft. I’m not sure what else there is to say – each song was performed with precision, enthusiasm and command. Tosin is a reserved showman and his quiet reserve belies his skill and talent with his guitar. I really enjoyed the show and recommend checking them out, should the opportunity.

Actually, that’s the bottom line – there wasn’t a band on this show card that wasn’t an excellent band, performing well and winning over, if not the crowd, me. I enjoyed myself, immensely, and would attend another show on this tour without hesitation. All the bands showed up and gave it their all, and that’s not something that’s always a given in this over-“pop”’d, lip-syncing world of drek that passes for music, these days. Every last band showed the audience that they respected and appreciated their outlay of cash to see them on this night and performed like it. In sports terms, they all “left it all on the field.” That’s all you can ask for. Well, it doesn’t hurt that they were all very talented and produced good music. So, again, if you have the opportunity to see the Animals as Leaders/Conquering Dystopia/CHON lineup – do it!

Android v. Windows Phone 8–One Man’s Experience

So it came that I had to get a new phone.  By “had,” I do mean “had.”  It was like when the Blackberry Tour decided it would no longer charge – if I wanted to continue using a phone, it was going to have to be something other than the Blackberry.  In the case of the Blackberry replacement, the new phone was the HTC8X Windows Phone 8.  A scant year later, it became necessary to change phones, again, as the HTC8X had begun such endearing behaviors as restarting at random, not sending texts, not receiving calls – you know…all the things that one looks for in a smartphone, these days.  So…now I have a Samsung S4. 

So enquiring minds want to know, do they?  They want to know “what do you like better?”  “which is a better phone?” “what made you choose Windows Phone in the first place and when you switched out the phone, why did you choose Android?”  These are all valid questions, really.  I’m going to answer them in a sort of shuffled order, though.

The Windows Phone Choice

I’ll be right up front – it was a “business” decision; a completely deluded, misguided business decision.  I thought that because it came with Office 2013 built in as well as built-in Outlook support (which turns out to be a bit misleading), I would be able to work on documents and handle company email tasks with ease and aplomb.  Lies.  Damned lies.  If you’ve never tried to deal with a 14-worksheet Excel workbook on your phone, you can die happy knowing that there are pieces of your soul that will never be pierced by unspeak evil.  If you have … you know of what I speak.

The Good.

Now, I liked the phone.  It’s a decent enough phone and I do have some apps I’ll miss as they’re not available on the Android market.  There aren’t many, but there a few, trust me.  For example, the 627AM alarm app is excellent.  I recommend it, highly.  GuitarTools is another that I enjoy that I haven’t found on the ‘droid market.  That said, I also enjoyed its fairly decent camera and pretty solid battery life.  Oh, and it had Beats built in, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.  I like the EQ boosting inherent to Beats a ton better than the overpriced, unwieldy and sonically suspect headphones of the same name.

The Bad.

The sim card slot sucks harder than blowing the door on a 747 at 30,000 feet.  I had to shim the sim with a piece of business card. This actually worked for several months until the past month when it simply would barf “SIM Card Error.  Emergency Calls Only” about 4 to 5 times a day.  Exceptionally irritating and, apparently, just a dumb design decision by HTC.  This alone was enough to push me towards switching phones. I never was a big fan of the random resets, either.  I would enjoy not being able to send a text three or so times and then on the fourth attempt, the phone would just reset.  It was the nail in the coffin as I sat in the Verizon store and it did it, twice, in the span of 5 minutes.

The Bluetooth implementation also seemed a bit sketchy.  I went through no fewer than 7 headset/earpieces trying to find one that would pair and maintain connection for more than 3/4 of a phone call without cutting in and out and eventually dropping connection so that I would hear “Hello?!” coming from the phone in my pocket.  Equally frustrating was the lack of device support.  Case in point, my Logitech bluetooth keyboard that I use extensively with my Galaxy tablet, and now, my S4; it never paired properly with the 8X.  For a phone that was purchased with productivity in mind, hammering out any form of work document on the touch-keyboard on the phone rather than a keyboard is…painful.

This is phone specific, but the lack of external storage got old.  Of course, if any SD expansion slot was handled the same way as the SIM slot, this might not have been a bad thing…

The Beats implementation did tend to muddy up metal, especially with blizzardy double-bass work…it’s why I didn’t go with the headphones of the same name: Amon Amarth sounds just awful at volume.

When Switching Phones, Why Did I Choose Android?

The obvious choice when detracting against the 8X, if you want to stick with a Windows Phone is the Nokia, from what I hear.  That said, I wouldn’t go Windows Phone again without corporate sponsorship and a custom OS-level developer living in my basement.  Why?  If you haven’t figured out from the previous section, then I’ll address why I went with Android.

First and foremost, it’s a much more stable OS.  I have had the S4 for close to two weeks, now and haven’t had a hiccup stemming from OS weirdness.  As I still have the phone, by way of making my point for me, the last three times I’ve trotted out the 8X to either sync contacts (manually, of course, since there’s no REAL support in that regard…), siphon off music or use one of the apps I like that have no counterpart, the phone has rebooted itself in the middle of said operation.  Seriously. 

Next, I prefer the Google Store.  I’m sorry – “Google Play.”  Even though nothing says ‘take me seriously’ like renaming a store concept to a “play” concept, it does have a more easily navigable paradigm, easier payment system that works more of the time and has a ton – and this is either imperial OR metric – more apps from which to choose.  Support for the Windows Phone is, indeed, growing, but at this point can’t hold a candle to the number of Android apps out there and part of that is the next point.

I can develop for my phone should I choose, and I can do it for free.  As a .Net developer imagine my glee when the SDKs were made available for the Windows Phones and were available as free add-ons to Visual Studio.  Imagine my grumpiness when said SDK was updated and would no longer work on my “plain” Windows 8 system but would require not only a paid upgrade to Windows 8.1, but also a paid upgrade to Visual Studio 2012 and whichever level of “awesome overkill” was a level or so above my version.  So, when I found the Android SDK, ADK and so on and plugged it into my Keplar installation of Eclipse and it *just worked* without any massive gyrations or outlays of cash, I was a very happy man.  That said, my Java is more than a little rusty, but the point is that with minimal effort (other than learning the language), I can start designing the next “Killer App” for my Android phone. 

Another reason was Google Everything.  I know, there’s no such product, but there might as well be.  The overarching products associated with Google and the integration into the phone OS are very compelling reasons.  My calendars now all sync.  My emails now come in without third-party applications.  I can, should I choose to accept the mission, hop onto Google Hangouts.  The main thing, however, was the calendar.  Since I’ve got it integrated with my Outlook installation at home, kludged into my Lotus Notes(!) installation at work, on both my tablet and now my phone, this makes it quite homogenous and reduces frustration levels a lot…in addition to reducing the number of “Oops!” moments as a result of a non-synced appointment being missed.

Which is a Better Phone?

There is no question in my mind that the Samsung S4 is a better phone than the HTC 8X, if only because of the SIM card debacle and the random resets. 

Summary, OR, Which Do I Like Better?

To conclude this rather lengthy missive, I will summarize as best I can without being overly repetitive.  I really like the S4 a lot.  I haven’t used it long enough to use the “Love” word (work with me…), but it’s growing on me.  It’s funny – my wife is watching the growing pains and learning curve of the S4 and keeps saying, “If you don’t like it or it doesn’t work, take it back!”  What she doesn’t have as part of the experiential frame of reference is the equivalent learning curve I went through with the 8X, as she hadn’t moved out here, yet. That’s a long story as to why, involving moving for work and that kind of thing, but the long and short of it is that she didn’t hear the same grumping and “aha” moments with the other phone.  The learning curve with the S4 has more to do with unlearning how I’d been doing it for the past year and doing it the way it’s done on an Android-based phone rather than “this thing sucks, wtf!” kind of problems.  Another big difference is that when I was having problems on the 8X, it was new enough that there were very few people who had any experience with it while the support on S4 has been superlative and “problems” have turned out to be less significant and more easily “fixed” with the S4 partly because the problems themselves are less significant (see SIM slot…) and partly because the fixes don’t involve OS-level tweaks, for the most part, which makes things much easier.

Honestly, I like Android better.  I’ll stick with Android.  The level of robustness is just, well, robust, and odds are good that if there’s something I want to do, there’s either an app for that, which wasn’t the case, often enough, with the Windows Phone. 

Conquering Dystopia–A Review

I’ve mentioned for a couple of bands/artists that particular “buy unheard” status.  Jeff Loomis has already been granted this status.  Keith Merrow joined up with Jeff, as did Alex Webster and Alex Rudinger.  So, it was with no hesitation, whatsoever, that I tossed the debut stylings of Conquering Dystopia into the ol’ cart and checked out.

If you’re not familiar with Jeff or Keith’s styles, they mesh well and are highly technical, rhythmically, with equally technical leads to accompany.  With that in mind, this disc has surpassed my expectations – and, believe me, those expectations were high.

Don’t misunderstand.  This isn’t a shred/wank-fest or “Bach-n-roll” a’la the mid-80s.  There will be no comparisons to Yngwie, Vinnie Moore or Tony McAlpine (who guests on Jeff’s most recent LP, for those interested), really.  This is pure Jeff and Keith putting together progressive and utterly dense, sinewy riffs upon which to delve into scale after scale, mode after mode.

Not to overshadow the bottom-end, thundering rhythm section, both Alexes (Alexii?) lay down bludgeoning groundwork that let both Jeff and Keith shred with that much more depth.  Use *good* headphones when listening, or a comparably capable stereo system to reproduce the brute force coming at you in the 80-260Hz range.  You will be rewarded.

There are times the albums lets up ever so slightly, to breathe, and those are welcome.  I really enjoyed, also, how these particular breaths segue into the most brutal entry riffs on the album. “Doomsday Clock” into “Inexhaustible Savagery” is mind-melting and I love it.  It all comes together with “Destroyer of Dreams” as a perfect ending to the album; it embodies everything the previous tracks built up towards and leaves you sated and spent.

Barring anyone else producing close to this kind of riff-gasm, I see strong contention for album of the year.  Oh…you want numbers and stuff?  Four thumbs up. But…that *is* serious.  Fine.  5 stars.  I will go 9.5/10 with deductions for making me almost short out my keyboard drooling over “Lachrymose” while adding 0.5 for using lachrymose correctly and really, truly, invoking that feeling.  This is a solid 10 album.

The bottom line with this album is really, really simple: Conquering Dystopia is technical, instrumental metal done exceptionally well and will both satisfy you deeply and leave you wanting more.  It’s hard to ask for more than that.