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Friday, July 29, 2011

Album Review: Bitch - Be My Slave/Damnation Alley Reissue

Bitch - Be My Slave/Damnation Alley Reissue
2011 Metal Blade Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Somewhere between Girlschool, Wendy O. Williams, Lee Aaron and The Great Kat, there was Betsy Bitch. While her whips and dom facade as frontwoman of the punk-metal hybrid Bitch was sheer farce in the beginning, Betsy Bitch became (and remains) a cult figurehead of the L.A. metal explosion. Truth be told, her name has only cropped up intermittently when most folks discuss the ladies of punk and metal, and that's a shame.

Grabbing bits of The Runaways, Girlschool, The Dictators and Hanoi Rocks as well as west coast proto power metal, Bitch the band was, initially, an underground force to be reckoned with, even if the whole thing was shtick. Already paving the way for a femme roast of cock rock with songs such as "Be My Slave," "In Heat," "Leather Bound" and "Live For the Whip," Betsy Bitch shared a rep of outrageousness with Wendy O. Williams, even if the Plasmatics are more revered than Bitch.

While The Great Kat has made her name as a virtuoso shredder, her jokey and riotous self-glorification took inspiration on the snarky stilletos of Betsy Bitch. Even though they're electro rock, Lords of Acid and the Genitorturers likewise owe a debt to Betsy Bitch for paying their dirty dues for them.

Not everybody was a fan of Bitch's odes to sodomy and sex slavery, which soon led Betsy Bitch to drop the "Bitch" from her name to simply Betsy. Her 1988 Betsy album watered the grime away and the bondage accoutrements hit the closet in a ply for a commercial acceptance that never came. When that strategy didn't work, Betsy re-emerged as Bitch the following year. The band raged through A Rose By Another Name and the self-titled Bitch album from 1991.

Most fans, however, remember Bitch's debut EP Damnation Alley and its eruptive succeeding LP, Be My Slave. Perhaps 1987's The Bitch is Back brought the band its most attention, yet there's no denying Be My Slave and Damnation Alley are this group's legacy.

At the very least, both albums hold up remarkably well considering their analog clunk and happy day, happy day, Metal Blade is bringing 'em back as a single package, much as they've appeared together on one unit since CDs were born. Like the Boomerang channel states, it's all coming back to you, and the return of Be My Slave/Damnation Alley is absolutely worth the pick-up if you don't yet own these trash classics.

Betsy Bitch is at her most ravenous on these two slabs, wailing, howling, growling, swooning and screeching like she'd studied the book of Johnny Rotten before ever laying down a vocal track. In her own way, Betsy Bitch possessed her own verve that differed her from Kim McCauliffe, Doro Pesch, Lita Ford and Wendy O. Williams. Betsy's scat-croons vary from monkeying around to reasonably serious. She belts out "Right From the Start," "Riding in Thunder," "Saturdays, Saturdays" and "In Heat" like she wants major props, even if she goes for broke at times and ends up breaking glass with some killer shrieks. Yet she's downright hot on the sultry (and eventually bombastic) "Save You From the World."

Sometimes she snogs throat rolls like Bjork later trademarked, but overall, Betsy Bitch presents herself as a punkette-headbanger who wants to give you an anal probe (likewise inviting you to return her stage persona the favor) on Be My Slave/Damnation Alley. "Leather Bound" is so coarse and ridiculous you have to laugh, much like Grace Jones' "Warm Leatherette," yet both songs get right into the brain on the merits of their hooks.

Guitarist David Carruth, bassist Ron Cordy and drummer Robby Settles provide the comic relief to Bitch's full-on gobbler raunch. Much as the musical components of Gwar have become a formidable band behind their gory antics, so too do Carruth, Cordy and Settles for Bitch. Their focused speed and aggression turns "Live For the Whip" into something as memorable for its near-thrash as Betsy Bitch's pretend whip-tip moaning. Likewise, "Heavy Metal Breakdown" chugs and thrums with an appreciable rev from the band, while "World War III" is a booming, beat-splashed nod to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal with a railing gal on the mike instead of Biff Byford.

The tracks on Damnation Alley are (for the most part) less abrasive and nutty. In fact, most are downright streamlined. If not for the fast and loose "Live For the Whip," you start to wonder how Bitch transformed from near-straight rock to the sleazy beligerence of Be My Slave. "Never Come Home" is one of the more focused and melodic tracks Bitch recorded in their career and it offers insight to the short-lived Betsy era. The title track should've made it into some splatterpunk Troma film, even though it's a readily accessible tune compared to the Be My Slave tracks. Then you have the greasy blues licks of "He's Gone" that comes off like a well-intended rip on Aerosmith and Foghat. Again antithesis to the mayhem that would later follow this EP.

To say the story of Betsy Bitch is a strange one is better left unsaid. Instead, we should slip on the ass-kicking rowdiness of Be My Slave/Damnation Alley and relish the boundaries that were knocked to smithereens--assuming you were paying attention when it happened. "Right From the Start" stands up in hefty punk 'o rama fashion to anything the Minutemen or Black Market Baby did and yet Betsy Bitch's over-the-top vocal hydraulics and David Carruth's spastic guitars puts Bitch right in league with the Plasmatics.

Mentioned over the years only as an afternote, it's good and proper that Bitch gets its due in a metal and punk revival system that is recycling overlooked records in the interests of older and newer audiences. Those who missed these cuff 'n muff nuggets the first time, step up and savor the sicko nostalgia. Those who are just learning about Betsy Bitch, enjoy the lesson and take notes. There will be a quiz.

Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Poll Question: What's the Best Metal Show You've Ever Seen?

I'm lucky to say I've been to my fair share of concerts, the bulk of them being heavy metal shows. There's just something about live music that draws us as a culture. Sure, it's optimum to consume music at your leisure, be it in private or amongst friends in a relaxation setting. Still, being there when a band takes the stage...there's a pact between artist and audience. So long as the artist shows the proper respect for those gathered to pay allegiance and bear witness to the best said artist has to give, all's well. In fact, sometimes it's spectacular.

As many shows I've been to, I know there are people who've been to far more than I. For some, the live listener's perspective is their gospel, much less the road dogs who actually perform the gigs. That being said, it can sometimes be a chore trying to select the best of the best concert experiences in one's life.

I can rattle off a lot of high moments from my concert memory banks. There's probably nothing I'll ever see quite like the frantic, spastic, electrifying performance of the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their Mother's Milk tour, before they stripped all of that agitated funk-punk down to what they are now. Not to diss the Chilis, but damn, the Mother's Milk jaunt...perhaps those who saw their early L.A. years can tell a better story of how much energy that band propelled upon their crowd back in the day.

Both times I've seen Prince are extremely memorable, particularly when he was ripping out a loud solo in the middle of a Zeppelin cover, then he planted his guitar on the stage, mimicked Hendrix's guitar torching genuflections, then Prince got his belly and slithered away, then back, striking six perfect notes on the fret from that position.

Tori Amos, Beastie Boys, Ben Harper, the Ramones, Sonic Youth, Beck, KRS-One, The Cure, Rush...all moments of wow for me. Metal-speaking, both times I saw Boris were cosmic experiences, ditto for the many times I caught Isis, the best of them with Pelican as openers a few years ago. Dylan Carlson and Earth, I was transfixed sitting in on their sound check, much less their mesmerizing gig. A very-young Trivium as openers for Iced Earth really showed me how badly that band wanted it. Celtic Frost on their Monotheist tour was an unholy religious experience; I pity anyone who missed it. Venom? I once feared that band, but live? Damnation, what fun, pun intended. Sharing fake blood right out of Lizzy Borden's palm on Halloween night a few years back is a personal highlight and what a monstrous performance that show was, again, pun intended. Speaking of monstrous, anytime Gwar puts on a show, you're gonna remember it.

I remember Government Issue around 1987, the first time I got into a slam pit and found myself on my ass within seconds. Somebody picked me up though I was metalhead at a punk show and it was simply awesome. Later in life, I retired from the mosh pit after some creep started headbutting people during a lethal set by Static-X and I came around with my fist up in defense mode. I realized then I was too old and too impatient for the bastardization that was moshing at the time. I can laugh now, but there was a time I lost my glasses in a mosh during Suicidal Tendencies after Pantera had just opened the show and Exodus headlined. Yeah, you read that right; Pantera opened. What a show.

Professionally, being front and center against the stage for Iron Maiden on their tour for A Matter of Life and Death is probably the most personally satisfying photo shoot I've ever done, even if the venue fucked all the photogs over by "losing" our tickets for the remainder of the show. My In Flames photos from Sounds of the Underground 2006 are amongst my favorite and the show was pretty amazing. It helped my candor that Anders Friden had given me a sweet interview on their bus and their TM was hospitable by offering me some much-needed water that day.

Chthonic is a live spectacle I won't forget, from behind the lens and from merely a fan's view. I remember both Behemoth and Cannibal Corpse literally shaking the place to pieces while my camera vibrated. Darkest Hour made waiting through 10 mediocre local bands worth the entire ride. Being there for the first Belladonna Anthrax reunion in Sayreville, New Jersey was quite special, particularly since they were filming Alive 2 that night and I'm somewhere in the crowd. That show was the only time in my life I'd been bumped and crashed into where every single person excused him or herself. Props to you, Jersey...

Better yet, being there at the Nokia in Times Square for Anthrax again on the same leg, right under Scott Ian, amidst pros I knew by name and had just kinda-sorta met in transition through the photo pit. Belladonna's solo gig in Baltimore a couple years prior to that remains a favorite because only 50 people showed, if that, and Joey played drums and sang, delivering a passionate show as if the joint had sold out. It was also fun interviewing him at the pool table earlier and just hanging out. Out of nowhere, I have to recall Motley Crue on the Dr. Feelgood tour, a pretty good show with a lousy and long guitar solo but made all the more astonishing by Tommy Lee's drum solo from the ceiling in the arena. Crikey, what a visual that brings up...

The memories are plentiful (particularly Monsters of Rock 1988 with Van Hagar, Scorpions, Metallica, Dokken and Kingdom Come), but if I have to narrow it down to cream of the crop metal shows I've been to, the 1990 Judas Priest/Megadeth/Testament show is a huge contender. You had Priest supporting Painkiller, Megadeth Rust in Peace and Testament Souls of Black. We missed some of Testament, but damn, what a show. I vividly recall Megadeth tearing the arena a new one, while I stood there with my mouth open during Priest's set, a ton of the old classics dusted off for the first time in many years at that show. It was a personal honor to tell Rob Halford, Glenn Tipton and KK Downing each in separate interviews what a privilege that was to see such a commanding performance.

Photo by Zach Petersen

That being said, there is just one show better than that and I occasionally run into other people who caught the same tour. When you read the lineup, it's just staggering, but get your head around this: Voivod, Soundgarden and Faith No More. Voivod headlined, while Soundgarden and Faith No More were the supporting acts. Both of the latter bands were on the cusp of breaking out and soon did after I saw this show, yet Voivod legitimately owned their headlining position. Picture if you will a miniature Pink Floyd set from the old years, bubble-like projections on a screen with hyperspeed thrash coming at you. Jesus wept...

Faith No More were incredible. Mike Patton climbed in the rafters of the venue and spread himself out on the beams and sang the old Nestle's jingle. The band was literally shaking the stage with their animation. That would've been enough for anybody. Then Soundgarden came on and blew everyone away. I had the funny distinction of having Chris Cornell's amp cord wrap around my throat while everybody was pushing him back onstage. Also, I had been jumping up and down in front of Cornell and got a high five and again lost my glasses. Thank God my friend Bob was there to shove people off the barrier so I could find the damned things. Again, more than enough for anybody to say they'd been to one hell of a show. Then the vintage era Voivod on their Nothingface leg, holy shit...

So kick back the memories, readers, and tell me what you think is the best metal show you've attended...

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Whattya Listenin' to Wednesday - 7/27/11

Waddup, beloved readers? What a whirlwind kind of week news-wise, eh?

First and foremost, condolences and respect out to our brothers and sisters in Norway. I usually get to read happier reports on Norwegian bands and athletes. Truly sad to see such an appalling act of cowardice as what transpired. May you all find peace. Fred, my friends...

The passing of Amy Winehouse is a tragedy most folks are shrugging off. It's apparent she wrote her own checkout ticket due to her extreme and excessive conduct offstage, and her death serves as yet another reminder why substance abuse and fame make deadly bedpartners. I had the opportunity to see Amy in concert a few summers ago and we were only joking at the time at how much she slurred, swayed and flubbed a few lines while her backup band valiantly saved the set. This was before the music press keyed in on her addiction and blew it through the roof. No wonder some people have a hard time kicking the habit. I wish that inebriated performance wasn't the lasting impression I had of Amy Winehouse since it's obvious she had much more to give.

Football season is back, but be careful which of your jerseys you choose to dust off for the new season, since the cuts are coming, the salary cap is collecting contracts and quite likely some of your favorite players are headed elsewhere. Let's hope all of the dumb arrests and foot-in-mouth incidents get curbed. Not bloody likely, though. I'll admit to being a Steelers fan since 1984 and I've never been more embarassed of the team as a whole for acting like a bunch of punks over the past few years with miscreant behavior and pointless trash-talking unfitting of 6-time champions. Shame on you, Steelheads. Keep your crap out of the public and out of the press. Mad love to Polamalu, Heath Miller and Coach Tomlin (and props to Big Ben for taking his on-field punishment like a man last year), though Tomlin needs to step down on the team with a zero tolerance for these meathead shenanigans. We're all human, but this is a plague of lame behavior that's costing the image of a team with probably the second biggest fan base behind Dallas. Where I live, they're Public Enemy #1 and you risk your life being a Steelers fan. There was a time when you risked your life being a Metallica fan in the mid-eighties. At this point, I'm going to be content there's a season and forget investing my allegiance to anybody--as I do hockey.

Coming up at The Metal Minute, we'll continue previously-stated agenda and add the latest crunch-o-matic fun from Totimoshi, new joints from Chelsea Grin and Grifter, the reissue of Bitch's Be My Slave/Damnation Alley and more.

Be well, people...

In Flames - Sounds of a Playground Fading
Iron Claw - A Different Game
Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions
Dragonlord - Black Wings of Destiny
Flotsam and Jetsam - No Place for Disgrace
Flotsam and Jetsam - Cuatro
Bitch - Be My Slave/Damnation Alley
Totimoshi - The Avenger
Zombie Shaker Box - Encrypted
Girlschool - The Collection
Pro-Pain - Act of God
Mindflow - With Bare Hands
Twisted Sister - Stay Hungry 25th Anniversary edition
Twisted Sister - Love is For Suckers
Twisted Sister - Club Daze Vol. 1: The Studio Sessions
Matadors - The Muse of Senor Ray
Matadors - Flame the Whisper
Grifter - s/t
Ride - Nowhere
Ride - Going Blank Again
Depeche Mode - Sounds of the Universe
Flogging Molly - Speed of Darkness
Raphael Saadiq - Stone Rollin'

Monday, July 25, 2011

DVD Review: Twisted Sister - Double Live

Twisted Sister - Double Live
2011 Eagle Vision
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Good evening... Welcome to their show, times two.

If there's one legacy metal band out there making the most of its past, one would automatically think of Motley Crue. Still occasionally recording and hosts of a summer slam festival that's grown in popularity, the Crue are somehow still masters of their domain despite their trials, lunacy and raucous headlines that would sink any other band. They've always been ruffians and the world doesn't want them any other way.

On the other hand, you have to hand it to Twisted Sister. No other band of their stature has ridden a full decade in an official capacity without sending out a brand new album and still maintains a hefty following. Minus a new song on the Stay Hungry 25th anniversary edition from two years ago and a slew of previously-unreleased material on the same package, Twisted Sister has re-emerged on the heels of reissues and live DVDs that have become even more crucial now than when a lot of it was originally released.

Perhaps it's the class clown emcee aura Dee Snider has projected for more than two decades since Twisted originally broke up. Perhaps it's Jay Jay French's restless comandeering of Twisted Sister's reinvention through retrospection. Perhaps we're all just fascinated that this band still has all five core members in their compound and they grew up to be a bunch of downhome bear-men beneath the cake and mascara sneeze.

Perhaps it's just the fact Twisted Sister kicks ass.

It's been well-documented the reason why Twisted Sister imploded after busting their nads for what must've seemed like an interminable waiting period in the sweatboxes of east coast rock clubs. 1987's Love is for Suckers ended up turning most metalheads away despite a handful of strong cuts. Of course, a handful doesn't equate into continued success and if you're familiar with the particulars that went into Love is for Suckers, the disassembly of the band was not surprising.

The band members retreated to their neutral corners for 13 years before a higher calling summoned them back to the rock table. These knighted glam crushers have since restored their personal honor and ditched the majority of their differences. While we're still waiting for Twisted Sister to give us what we feel in our bones should be a good-time slab of new material, now comes Double Live, another couple pieces of the pie, historically-speaking.

Double Live whisks audiences back to 1982 as well as 2001, two periods marking a farewell and a howdy-do point in Twisted Sister's legacy. The '82 concert, filmed at the North Stage Theater in Long Island, is one of the best representations of Twisted at their most unchained, their most punk, their most metal. Here is a Twisted Sister unit on the cusp of ascension towards rock royalty. The 2001 show at New York Steel in Manhattan represents Twisted Sister in its mending phase as the United States was licking its wounds weeks after 9/11. Both shows present their own drama. One is reckless and free, the other, more contained and focused upon pushing forward in a statement of unity--for themselves and their country.

If you're looking for power and aggression, the North Stage show is simply going to blow you out of your socks. Twisted Sister throws out one hell of a goodbye to the tri-state club scene they came up in just days before they ventured off to England to record Under the Blade. What resonates about the North Stage gig is the breathtaking energy in the band. A.J. Pero had only been in Twisted Sister a couple months at this point, but there's an undeniable click to this show. We learn in the interview segments Pero was playing that gig busted up and sore, which is partially why he protrudes a fanged exterior. Regardless, he's as much an animal behind the kit as Mark Mendoza is beneath his one-time shrub. All the boys are at their glammiest here, adding a freakshow dimension that carries forth better in 1982 than when the "We're Not Gonna Take It" video vaulted them into the stratosphere. While Eddie "Fingers" Ojeda flubs his solo on the traditional opening number "What You Don't Know (Sure Can Hurt You)," he gets in the pocket thereafter, even if Jay Jay French is freaking lightning when he carries the solos.

There's an unspoken choreography to Dee Snider's pole positioning as he jukes stage right at a particular lurch then swerves to the other side. You see it in 1982 and you see it on some of the same songs in 2011. When Dee had his gargantuan mane during Twisted Sister's short reign over the hard rock world, it was more about pogoing and leaping about to get those locks trailing. In these shows, it's almost as if Dee sees invisible tape X's marking where to go during "Shoot 'em Down," "You Can't Stop Rock 'n Roll," "Tear it Loose," "Bad Boys of Rock 'n Roll" and "What You Don't Know (Sure Can Hurt You)." This is not a criticism whatsoever, because Snider is a fireball in both shows, yet during the '82 gig, all of his limbs flail like he's being electrocuted while he wails and growls. It's infectious to watch.

The North Stage show is stocked with a lot of Twisted Sister's first batch of soon-to-be staples such as the aforementioned tunes plus "Destroyer," "Sin After Sin" and of course their immortal "Under the Blade." Even better, though, is the opportunity to see songs the band considers their retired "bar" tunes such as "Lady's Boy," "Rock 'n Roll Saviours," "I'll Never Grow Up Now" and an incredible rendition of "You Know I Cry." The latter is spectacular for its raw edge, but even more so when Dee Snider re-emerges from behind the amps during some insane tag-team soloing by French and Ojeda with his own guitar. It's a rare glimpse at how proficient a musician Dee Snider really is.

Also of note in the '82 show is the different stage garb Dee wears which you almost never see again later, plus a then-fashionable haunt with a motorcycle onstage during their cover of "Leader of the Pack." It's not quite as revered an image as Rob Halford in a big arena, but you can't deny the moxy and creative spirit Twisted Sister unleashes at the North Stage. Back then, they weren't greeted and cheered by devil's horns. At this point, the A-OK hand symbol sufficed as a fist in the air and it's a trip watching Dee coax the Long Island faithful into throwing out those A-OK thrusts as compared to damn near every metal band today begging for horns by their audience. At least Twisted Sister earned their endearments in this adrenalized performance.

By comparison, the New York Steel show is more about the moment than the performance. As Twisted Sister were shedding their rust after such a long layoff, they do sound remarkably well, all considering. Perhaps not as dense a projection during "The Kids Are Back," "Under the Blade," "I Wanna Rock" and "Shoot 'em Down," you find yourself cheering the guys on anyway. They still pound out "What You Don't Know," "S.M.F.," "The Price" and "Burn in Hell" with gusto. "Burn in Hell" is dedicated to the now-late Osama bin Laden as Dee Snider is wearing a vest with the blazing message "Fuck Osama" on his back. The gory images of the fallen Twin Towers were well upon the band's minds in this show.

The makeup-less Twisted Sister in 2001 presents the old rugged tough guy image you saw in their ages-ago video for "You Can't Stop Rock 'n Roll" only with elder lions' muscle. There's an uncertainty within the band just how they're going to come off, much less if there will be a future beyond the moment. A decade later, we now know there is a future to Twisted Sister and bless the guys for nodding back to their club daze with "You Know I Cry" and "Come Back" in the New York Steel show.

Played in company with fellow New York metal legends Anthrax, Ace Frehley, Sebastian Bach and Overkill, the headlining Twisted Sister brings a towering voice to the New York Steel show organized by Eddie Trunk. Kudos to Twisted for putting it all on the line in the interest of their fellow New Yorkers and it's a happy story they managed to continue on, if even only as a revival form of their past at this point.

Each concert has 35-40 minutes of interviews with all five members and as usual, each are worth tuning in for. Piece by piece, Jay Jay French is releasing the frequently bizarre story of Twisted Sister. If you thought the bonus DVD to the Under the Blade reissue was something, get ready for Double Live, especially that cocks-out 1982 performance serving as a bigger symbol of what Twisted Sister is even more than their revered "TS" logo.

Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Album Review: In Flames - Sounds of a Playground Fading

In Flames - Sounds of a Playground Fading
2011 Century Media
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

At this point in time, long-tenured metal acts such as In Flames now comprise the genre's collegiate elite, if you will. One of the classier bands from this generation, In Flames represents a stylized ascension from proto death metal to a bombastic expression of pop-influenced heaviness.

Those who've followed In Flames since the nineties on their Lunar Strain and Subterranean albums have been unapologetic in their condemnation of the band's borderline mainstream transformation as of 2004's Soundtrack to Your Escape. Unfathomable that "The Quiet Place" actually struck the FM charts, yet commercial radio has since backed off from In Flames for whatever reason. Come Clarity was a hot seller for the band even without AOR assistance, yet the group more or less suffered the same brief shrug-off by many fans as did Shadows Fall during their album cycle for 2007's Threads of Life. Obviously, Shad rebounded in spectacular fashion with Retribution and won their fans back.

While 2000's Clayman is usually the album most of In Flames' core audience cites as their favorite, credit should go where it's due. In Flames may have struck a certain formula in transition, but as of their latest offering, Sounds of a Playground Fading, there is an unwavering attention to detail and harmony amidst the planted aggression. Even with departed guitarist Jesper Stromblad leaving a questionable void in the band, the shaken-up components of In Flames have answered remarkably well with Sounds of a Playground Fading.

The agreeable title of the record rings of the nuclear fallout scene in Terminator 2 and In Flames have become so adept at creating ear-tingling aquaducts you can feel a T-1000 squishing up behind you. Judgment Day? Inherently implied by the lyrics of Sounds of a Playground Fading, yet judgment day is well upon In Flames themselves. Whether they feel it or not, this album is critical to their future, partly due to the loss of Stromblad from their ranks, but also for their continued mass acceptance.

As it turns out, Sounds of a Playground Fading is the sound of youth for the youth. It is a mandatory summer vacation album for the world's teenagers, which is not to say In Flames have written an alienating album for everybody else, demographically-speaking. There's a pitch, a cadence, a verve to Sounds of a Playground Fading that carries the soaring vocals of Anders Friden and the brushy note picking of Bjorn Gelotte into pastures that could've been maudlin given the group's internal shake-ups.

When you hear the aspirant choruses of "Where the Dead Ships Dwell," they present a diverse hopefulness beyond the trudging verses. It speaks to the young looking for an identity, and it speaks to those more traveled. The groovy twin solos from Gelotte and new addition Niclas Engelin voice all the song hopes to accomplish, while Friden places a majestic croon overtop the grinding riffs and submerged electronics by Orjan Ornkloo.

The fascinating element to Sounds of a Playground Fading is the frequency in which In Flames varies the duality of depression and self-composure. "The Attic" comes off subdued in nature with a programmed beat and hollow synths beneath a primary guitar melody and a restrained near-whisper from Friden. Still, it resonates with a hint of strange satisfaction amidst the conveyed barrenness.

All over this album, In Flames turns anger into near-righteousness. A song like "Darker Times" flogs yet it strides while Anders Friden sings about fabricated self-pity. The longer the song goes (and it's not a long cut at 3:25), you hear In Flames rise above what's implied to offer their listeners the chance to buck up and smile. Perhaps it's well to assume their own recent trials are reflected and purged on Sounds of a Playground Fading. By the time the textured exhalations of "A New Dawn" arrives towards the close of the album, congratulations are well-earned between the dramatic keyboard flushes and the chamber fugue accompaniment that splices the nodding grind of the song. Beautiful stuff.

Best of all, Daniel Svensson keeps the album on a perpetual throb. He's particularly effective on the head-crashing fluxes of "Deliver Us," "Sounds of a Playground Fading," "Where the Dead Ships Dwell," "A New Dawn" and the speedier rushes of "The Puzzle" and "Enter Tragedy."

Stretching out of their scheme on the last number, "Liberation," In Flames steps up to a funk rhythm nobody could ever have expected from them. "Liberation" is a snappy pimp roll to deliver its live in the moment message, a fitting uptempo closing argument to a smartly-balanced postulation between tragedy and victory.

Victory belongs to In Flames with Sounds of a Playground Fading. Stripped down in some respects, embossed with grandiosity in others, this is a poised example of a band professing a higher road on record and choosing to follow their own advice straight to a happy conclusion.

Rating: ****

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Album Review: Iron Claw - A Different Game

Iron Claw - A Different Game
2011 Ripple Music
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

It takes a lot of balls to pick up where you left off nearly four decades ago. While a lot of rock and metal bands have hung tough through the same period of time, or they came and went and came back, there's something about the story of Scotland's Iron Claw that makes you smile. Particularly when you throw on their first ever polished studio recording and it sounds this damned heavy, this damned cool, this damned right.

You've never heard of Iron Claw, no doubt. Rock snobs who are aware of these power rock ruffians from yesteryear never hesitate to use the word "obscure" in the same sentence when introducing Iron Claw. Okay, so Iron Claw never achieved the same notoriety as Canned Heat, Free or Blue Cheer. Somehow, even though Iron Claw was largely contained to their native highlands and neighboring Euro territories, one gets the impression they should've had a shot at an Isle of Wight appearance in the opening tiers.

The lore of Iron Claw has it the original foundation consisting of Ian McDougall, Alex Wilson and Jimmy Ronnie banded together in 1969 after witnessing the earth-shattering might of Led Zeppelin. Iron Claw are said to have derived their name from a King Crimson song, "21st Century Schizoid Man." Whatever is truth and whatever is fiction about Iron Claw, they sought to fuse the meanest blues rock riffs they could muster with the groovy grunge of Black Sabbath and perhaps Iron Butterfly. In the beginning covering Ten Years After, Free and Johnny Winter cuts, Iron Claw developed their repertoire and lasted officially until 1974.

Add to the legend the fact Iron Claw had never released an actual album during their original run, which eventually expanded to a foursome, while drummer Ian McDougall soon bolted at one point. Shift to 2009 and Iron Claw's improbable "comeback" of sorts with the release of Rockadrome, a collection of the band's early demo recordings, which then served as the only known capsule of their work.

Until now.

A Different Game. A simple title, that, but you have to appreciate it for the way Iron Claw intends it. Things have naturally changed in the music business since McDougall, Wilson and Ronnie first set out to conquer the rock world and didn't. Forget the formats of music consumption and forget the demographics that have changed since the early seventies. Iron Claw returns with a live-recorded studio album with very few dubs and final touches and indeed, life is a different game for these headstrong Scots.

Much of the pace of A Different Game barely gets past the doom and blues variety. However, Iron Claw is not a doom band, much as they sport a bitchin' righteous doom metal band name if there ever was one outside of Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus. A Different Game is more upbeat, if even-handed. You're not going to get a lot double time and signature swaps. No use worrying about ripping arpeggios. This is pure muscle at work and Iron Claw still has plenty of the natural juice in them to make this reunion endeavor soar. Fellow countrymen Nazareth continue to march with amps kicking and Iron Claw brings a booming kindred spirit in the tradition of Nazareth along with a respectful blend of Lynard Skynard, Black Sabbath, AC/DC and Deep Purple.

The stepped-up opener, "What Love Left" gets right into the crunch and though Iron Claw has a few variations to mingle into their snarling stride on A Different Game, expect to settle in with a plod from the next cut, "Saga," on. It's a mid-tempo pace that you'll embrace, actually, because this is a pack of elder statesmen intent on showing themselves off. Raunchy guitar chugs and dirty solos from Jimmy Ronnie are part of Iron Claw's rebooted assets, while Alex Wilson and Ian McDougall seem content to pound out a primary rhythm that allows the listener to take a hit of their heft. A band with this much of a layoff and no album history (prior to 2009) shouldn't sound so controlled and so focused.

Vocalist Gordon Brown, recruited into the fold for this venture, sings a quickly-contained memento about Iron Claw on "Saga," quickly pecking out their story that's "often been told but never heard." That's basically all the candle-lighting Iron Claw obliges with this album. Knowing perfectly well they have to re-introduce themselves to a largely-unknowing public, they employ some of Deep Purple's more rugged methods on "Angel Woman" and the title track, while "Southern Sky" and "Falling Down" are so Skynard and Bad Company-esque in a less-flashy manner you buy into it all. Retro, but not quite. Grittier, we should say.

McDougall's deft strikes gives A Different Game a heady punch while Jimmy Ronnie shifts between laggard chord drags, wailing bar slides and some ear-bending solo scorching--a prime example of the latter on "It's Easy," where Ronnie gets two extensive rockout sessions. Greasy, nasty, indulgent, rude and ultimately satisfying, given the delicate acoustic intro to the subsequent track "My Way Down," a song which quickly develops into one of the heaviest and meanest tunes on the album. Forget Born Again; let's pretend Purple and Sabbath merged altogether and you get the flavor Iron Claw is seeking out of "My Way Down." They pretty much nail it as a mere foursome, so much even Gordon Brown pulls a tricky octave or two from Ian Gillan's repertoire. Then listen to Jimmy Ronnie wreck havoc in the final stanza of "Love is Blind," oi...

Sticking to a general groove with A Different Game is not the inherent foil one would expect. Iron Claw ends up not being a one trick pony, despite their critics from another day who are probably lucky to still hold their pints in their guts for more than a half hour. Iron Claw possesses a specialty that was lost to the world, simply because they weren't discovered. Iron Claw missed their shot at arena glory and it's a bit painful to hear well-polished songs like "Targets," "What Love Left," "See Them Fall," "The Traveler" and "Falling Down" as evidence they could've at least opened for Purple, Rainbow and Thin Lizzy. Thankfully Iron Claw has given themselves the opportunity to say a thundering hello to the rock world, if not hijack it.

Now is the time to discover Iron Claw. It's naive to think of this band in terms of the next Anvil, meaning the feelgood comeuppance story of the year. Yet you do have to think Iron Claw has engineered their own comeuppance. A faithful bunch of fans demanded their return and Iron Claw responded. Smartly they flocked to Ripple Records, home of the mighty Poobah and Stone Axe, and home of the rawk resurrection. They went into the care of fans and with any luck, Iron Claw will finally be given some due...for their balls, if nothing else.

Rating: ****

Friday, July 22, 2011

Album Review: Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions

Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions
2011 Century Media
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Though it's been a lifetime ago it seems, Arch Enemy's Black Earth is a metal album that has held the band to a vicious standard it hasn't really been too interested in living up to. Though you almost never hear anybody slag mainstay vocalist Angela Gossow since she can ralph and tear chunks from her esophagus with equal (if not better) proficiency as her male counterparts, you do now and then hear a metal fan pining for Johan Liiva. Or better yet, the days of Arch Enemy minus all of the excessive balladry and power pop.

Many scoffed at Arch Enemy's previous outing The Root of All Evil, an album hijacking a large chunk of the Liiva era for Gossow to bellow out her own blistering rip through red times she wasn't originally there for--even though she's fielded plenty of Arch Enemy's old material in live sets. In the grand scheme, The Root of All Evil was pretty pointless, at least until you measure it against Arch Enemy's latest album, Khaos Legions.

Given 2001's Wages of Sin introduced Gossow to a hyperactive metal crowd eager to receive her out of curiosity sake, it's been more the story of how far Arch Enemy has drifted from its blackened foundry, i.e. Black Earth, Stigmata and Burning Bridges. Not to say albums like Doomsday Machine and Rise of the Tyrant aren't heavy duty albums, but it is sufficient to say Arch Enemy has been less interested in becoming the Mercyful Fate of their time, which they could have been, if not for their stretches into tuneful progression and fist banging mania.

If you're one of those Arch Enemy fans longing for the old days, then you'll do well to give Khaos Legions a whirl. While some songs can't resist the tumble from thrash to skidding chamber fugue as interpreted by metalheads (a method refined by Yngwie Malmsteen and incorporated way too much by this band), a hefty portion of Khaos Legions digs back into the Black Earth and Stigmata goodie bags.

Thus you get why Arch Enemy took the time to re-record their vintage catalog with Gossow on The Root of All Evil. They primed her for this moment. Indeed, the roots are here on Khaos Legions with frequent blares of immeasurable speed, grimy riff structures and a regal solo clinic from the Amott brothers, Chris and Michael.

Perhaps only Megadeth's Endgame has more celebratory shredding and guitar trade-offs, because the Amotts throw themselves and their fans quite a party on Khaos Legions. It's hard to pinpoint all of the standout solos on this album, because they're hurled at will, some when you're expecting them...often not. For sake of the argument, we'll cite "Thorns in My Flesh," "Cruelty Without Beauty," "Cult of Chaos," "Bloodstained Cross," "Vengeance is Mine" and "Yesterday is Dead and Gone" as focal points for the Amotts' spectacular torquing and fret shagging. Plug in and let your brains get fried by these guys. The Amotts are always reliable, but on Khaos Legions, they rampage.

While the opening third or so of the album strives to bridge the old Arch Enemy to the newer era with infernal blasts worming back into midtempo huzzahs, there's a methodic appeasement going on with Khaos Legions. "Yesterday is Dead and Gone" is heavier than fuck, yet it keeps slipping into Bach-esque maneuvers with deliberate amiability. "Bloodstained Cross" roars out the gate like a dragon, then settles into a stabilized hum on the verses before Arch Enemy pulls levers that send their listeners out like a blast coaster. In the same song, "Bloodstained Cross" suddenly drags to a crawl before cranking out the other tempo sequences all over again.

In some ways, these internalized cross-examinations of moods during the opening numbers is a bit of chore. One gets the impression this album is going to be more a maudlin yet melodic do-up of Anthems of Rebellion. "No Gods, No Masters" is Arch Enemy's obligatory crowd pump-up for this record, but before you can say "sell the script," they tease their fans with the highly busy "Through the Eyes of a Raven." It's no so much the shift in pentameter on "Through the Eyes of a Raven" that makes it a standout; it's the complicated sequences Arch Enemy rattles through this song that makes it a total guess from start-to-finish. Is it a death march, is it a headbanger's fiesta? Is it a soaring escapade or is black metal for those not too ingrained in the genre? The answer is all of the above and wow, what a mindrape, particularly with the acoustic outro, which is an isolated murmur into the next track, "Cruelty Without Beauty."

Here is where Khaos Legions really finds its raw nerve, as "Cruelty Without Beauty" soars on Daniel Erlandsson's double hammers, triplets and grind, all dipping into a ghostly ether until Arch Enemy picks up the pace again and the Amotts cut loose. This is expert metal songwriting, along with the brief instrumental "We Are a Godless Entity," one of Arch Enemy's most inspired compositions ever. Like classic Testament, the reserved nature of that instrumental serves up the maniacal "Cult of Chaos," one of the fastest tunes Arch Enemy has done in ages, even if they do bring the velocity down in increments.

The same schism applies between the quick interlude "Turn to Dust," which leaves you unprepared for the even faster "Vengeance is Mine," a song of sheer moxy in living up to its title. The brief slowdowns on "Vengeance is Mine" are genuinely there to let you catch your breath, on top of showing off Arch Enemy's knack for power metal plants. Even though the second half of "Vengeance is Mine" is mostly set at mid-tempo, the rocketing finale is exuberant.

Arch Enemy exits Khaos Legions with a banging statement, "Secrets." Crushing and eloquent with tons of speed and more of their baroquian textures that the listener does have enough of by album's end, Arch Enemy couldn't have asked for more out of themselves with "Secrets" as a closer and as a metalhead's idea of nirvana.

If the first third or so of Khaos Legions matched the unrelenting intensity of the remainder of the album and if Arch Enemy hadn't overcooked their pot of Bach boullion, then this might've been an album of the year contender. As it is, Khaos Legions is a damned good album from a veteran metal outfit with all cogs operating to perfection. This is the album their original fans have long wanted, while more recent additions to their listening family are going to feel like their minds have evaporated. Can't complain about either case if you're Arch Enemy, right?

Rating: ****

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Metal Louvre: Flotsam and Jetsam - No Place For Disgrace

Thrash legends Flotsam and Jetsam were put on the map mostly due to Jason Newsted's ascension to Metallica following his time in this group. They also gained a minor bit of notoriety in 1990 with their speedy and amusing rip on Elton John's "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting." In a way, lending a thrash kick to one of John's rare aggressive and mashing tunes was a slight bit of genius. Only Realm's blazing cover of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" can top that.

While every serious metal fan has Flotsam's Doomsday for the Deceiver in his or her collection for its cult prestige, No Place For Disgrace might be the most consistent album in their catalog. This, even while dabbling in touches of progression that would later become their stamp from Cuatro on through.

No Place for Disgrace's album artwork, however, was monster bait if you were merely trolling through the metal section back in the day. Boris Vallejo's haunting interpretation of the Japanese suicide pact seppuku is one of the most eerie images to flood a metal record ever. And there's no Satan, corpses or pagan goats to be found. This is for real.

Most people are aware the ancient Japanese code of bushido mandated that any samurai royally screwing up or bringing dishonor upon himself or his feudal lord was obligated to take his life. As Vallejo vividly depicts, the offending samurai guts himself with a wakizashi while a standby lops off his head. In some cases, the lore of who the standby was presented its own code of honor, particularly if that samurai had the stones to do the beheading or not.

On No Place For Disgrace, Vallejo reveals no conflict between these samurai. The act is in full swing, the dishonored samurai is offering his final prayers before impaling himself, while his standby is more than committed to his part. There's a sense of twisted beauty to Vallejo's painting but moreover, a disturbing sense of resolve. Still, you have to wonder, is the standby struggling inside to do his duty or was he delegated to the task and eager to get it over with?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Whattya Listenin' to Wednesday - 7/20/11

Wednesday, already, are you freaking serious?

What's happenin' readers? Just opening mail as I type and I can't thank enough my label and publicist reps out there who still send hard copy material for editorial consideration. Yes, I'm a damn fossil, so what? It's downright nice to find a deluxe edition copy of In Flames' new album Sounds of a Playground Fading and another new Twisted Sister DVD, Double Live amongst other hard copy albums in the mailbox. Bless ya, gang, the packages do make my day in these brutal economic times for everybody.

On the flipside, I hate to keep acting like a fossil, but let's talk about movie remakes a second. I know Hollywood recently green lit up to 60 remakes, but what kind of confidence does that show? It's a cash-in and unfortunately not too much of it is to be desired. Is it really necessary to do a third version of The Thing, when the first two are proud standouts of their time and place? I can tell you I'm not very inspired by the trailer for the new Thing, as well as the Fright Night and Conan the Barbarian remakes. My mind is open to a point, and I even gave the new Nightmare On Elm Street and The Stepfather flicks a chance. Both were better than I expected, but both totally pointless. Perhaps the best remake I've seen in awhile is the new Karate Kid, even if Mr. Smith is doing kung-fu, not karate. Semantics, right? The Crazies, not bad at all since Romero was involved, but honestly, enough's enough, huh?

And The Smurfs in Manhattan? Jesus wept, talk about uninspiring...

At least the final Harry Potter movie was up to the moment. It has been almost a year since I've had a date with my wife due to the kiddo and the budget, but we did slip out to catch Deathly Hallows Part 2 and it was a very satisfying conclusion to what has been the literature and fantasy film epic of this time, The Lord of the Rings notwithstanding. And Dark Knight Rises is around the corner, whoo-ha!

For the upcoming agenda here at The Metal Minute, we'll be checking out the latest from Arch Enemy, Twisted Sister, In Flames, Mindflow, Iron Claw, Zombie Shaker Box and more. Ya'll come back now, etc. etc.

Pro-Pain - Round 6
Brent Hinds - Fiend Without a Face/West End Motel
Mastodon - Remission
Mastodon - Leviathan
Mastodon - Blood Mountain
Mastodon - Crack the Skye
Probot - s/t
Arch Enemy - Khaos Legions
Rusty Eye - Possessor
Crossfade - We All Bleed
Unearth - Darkness in the Light
Amen - s/t
Amen - We've Come For Your Parents
Amen - Death Before Musick
Deftones - White Pony
Deftones - Diamond Eyes
Samael - Above
400 Blows - Black Rainbow
400 Blows - Angel's Trumpets and Devil's Trombones
Prince - Crystal Ball
Depeche Mode - Ultra
Simply Red - Picture Book
Bob Dylan - The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
Peter Frampton - Frampton
Wendy Carlos - Tron soundtrack
Ennio Morricone - The Thing (1982) soundtrack
Bach - various concertos

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Poll Question: What Does Borders Books and Music Closing Mean For the Industry?

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan - AFP/Getty Images

If you've been reading this blog awhile, you know where I stand on the gradual demise of media retailers. I won't spend a bunch of paragraphs rehashing what I've stated before. If you want to really get in the nuts and bolts of my feelings, kick up my review of I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store in the DVD reviews section.

Part of growing older means watching your way of life and the foundations of what resonates with you drift away. Some call it culture shock. Some call it simple old fogyism. It happens, period. The ironic thing for me is that I come from a generation that witnessed the dawn of the tech explosion we're currently watching unfold before our eyes. We frontiered, as consumers, the acceptability and better, enjoyment of video games, CDs, home video, computers, color t.v.s and portable phones. My generation is the last one who can remember cassette tapes and black and white television screens. We also played outside more than we hung inside. That was, until the cable t.v. revolution pinned us indoors, at least for awhile.

No, we didn't have to tramp five miles to school as our elders proclaimed, but we were a relatively simplistic society that was nurtured on physical products, i.e. paperback novels, hard cover texts, albums, comic books and such. The Jetsons represented a possibility of the future that was more fun to daydream about than to actually be confronted by.

That's where we're at now as a society. The advancement of technology is fundamentally based on a need to meet the imaginations of Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Jetsons. Plain and simple. We want that damned com link we can slap on our chests and reach someone nebulae away. We want gadgets that entertain us and take us out of our day-to-day grind, even so much as walking down the street without having to look up and face the world.

Again, I'll stop there, because my point's been made and it is made to point out why the closing of a retail king like Borders Books and Music stings like hell. Okay, people may argue Borders was corporate, sometimes overpriced. That's the industry dictating what Borders could charge, honestly. One can thus argue that technological advancements with iPods, iPads and digital book readers is keeping the industry honest.

True, however, we are losing more and more of ourselves the more we surrender to all of this glorious tech. As with independent record stores, the closing of Borders eliminates a social aspect that's dying off with the advent of online social networking and digital downloads. We love the convenience of getting things within seconds instead of driving miles for the unsure thing. However, there's a part of life to that disappointment when Borders or whatever emporium of the wares one seeks doesn't have something desired in stock. It sucks, it's annoying, but what satisfaction when you finally get the damned thing, yes?

I may have been infuriated with Borders for shooing myself and a bunch of other purchasers away the day Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows was released when we arrived early in the morning to buy an advance ticket for the book at midnight. I ended up going to their primary competitor who was eager to sell me a ticket for the book that night. I stood in a very long line to get my copy, but I won't ever forget the event itself and the people who were there, those whom I met and never saw again but their faces are fresh in my mind. People dressed up in Hogwarts chic to get that final chapter of the Harry Potter saga in print, much as they did on opening day for Part 2 of the film rendition this past weekend. It was a cultural phenomenon you can't get from a stinking computer. It was nerdy, it was ultimately silly, but it was something memorable and Borders was a part of it. Think of all the people they did sell copies to. Economically-speaking, that's a big loss.

Perhaps it's just me and a lot of it has to do with the fact I'm a writer and I have a new novel I want the world to read once the right channels produce it. The loss of Borders has just cut off a large sanction of potential readers and that hurts. If you're a creative person, every possible outlet that gets your words to the masses is precious. They may overcharge, they may inadvertently lower your future earnings growth by dumping the excess stock into the discount bins, but as long as the connection is there, you're being read or at least advertised to the world. It's a sad day for me personally, that Borders, after hanging tough with bankruptcy looming overhead, is closing up altogether. Tech has a lot to do with its demise. The crummy economy is the other factor. It's up to Barnes and Noble, a superior chain that has its finger on the pulse of both live and electronic-based audiences, to keep the spirit alive. Them, and Books-a-Million and all the indie book shops scattered throughout the country.

Bless all of them, because they're the final line of defense. I won't ever forget the day I cracked open Stephen King's The Shining for the first time at age 12, bought for me by my grandfather at a bookstore in 1982. 'Nuff said...

Does Borders closing up affect any of you folks? Let me hear from you.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Album Review: Unearth - Darkness in the Light

Unearth - Darkness in the Light
2011 Metal Blade Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

After heaving a steady blast of albums at the metal world, it's been about three years since we've last heard from Unearth. Their last record from 2008 The March showed this band in the stages of evolution beyond their roles as metalcore kings. Unearth also found themselves in transition on the drum kit with the changeover from Mike Justian to former Seemless skin smasher Derek Kerswill.

The March had a refurbished, monkeys-off-the-back freshness about it but push comes to shove, what Unearth has made a name for itself by employing stack 'n smash transitions between velocity and breakdown chugs will, unfortunately for them, begin to lose gradual favor in metal. At the moment, they still have the chance to strike while their name counts for something.

With their newest album Darkness in the Light, Unearth does what they do better than most, still in league with Devildriver, All That Remains and Lamb of God as the ambassadors of American metalcore. In order for Unearth to stay relevant, however, they would have to--by attrition--turn a few new tricks. The March showed a number of spots where Unearth was willing to experiment and broaden themselves. On Darkness in the Light, one almost thinks Unearth decided to skip the formality of extension and just go for broke with their bread and butter sound. As it turns, one would be correct. For their dedicated fans, this near back-up to 2004's The Oncoming Storm will be a joy, assuredly.

Nevertheless, it's sad to say that Unearth is in peril of sounding dated as metal as a whole sniffs around for the next great tactic to exploit. Even sadder, that tactic is starting to lean towards the routes of safe 'n easy commercial AOR. There's no reason Darkness in the Light shouldn't be thought of as an album to hand the asses of most of its competition over to them. Still, a momentum-slashing breakdown sequence on the opening number "Watch it Burn" wears an old hat and for the most part, Darkness in the Light itself does likewise.

Admirably contained to 38 minutes, Darkness in the Light is as polished and professional as Unearth has ever been, perhaps even more so now that they're quantified veterans. Trevor Phipps still brings a righteous pentameter to his barking and per usual, Ken Susi and Buz McGrath peel everything off the walls within their luminous reach. Their solos are still gorgeous and their notes and chords are like brushstrokes amidst the savage tempos on songs such as "Ruination of the Lost," "Last Wish," "Disillusion," "Overcome" and "Eyes of Black."

The shredding and soloing on the intro "Arise the War Cry" is truly exuberant, while the blazing few bars thereafter surrender to mid tempo pulverizing for much of the track. While the song spins in a few series of killer melody and a mind-melding solo section, the fact it simply had to have a mammoth breakdown in the middle shows both a confidence in Trevor Phipps and Unearth's songwriting as well as an unwillingness to break tradition.

That is, until the downright progressive "Equinox" arrives and finally, this album relishes in its moment of redemption. Not to slag on Unearth whatsoever because Darkness in the Light is as heavy as anything they've ever done, but "Equinox" speaks louder than everything else with its haunted piano laces (think Nine Inch Nails) and an abbreviated explosion which serves the well-deserved climax.

Unearth picks back up where it left off on the thrashy "Coming of the Dark," which is a natural headbanging jam with a few stretches of swooning cadence amidst the hammering beat keeping this song on an even stride. Phipps' elongated and punctuated roaring on "Coming of the Dark" keeps it interesting even during a jivey breakdown. Stay tuned as well for a pair volcanic guitar solos here.

Darkness in the Light is by means a slouching album. If you still believe in metalcore, then you have every right to believe in this album. "The Fallen" will probably be your anthem track for its predictable shift between speed and chugging. That's really the only bitter pill about this album. It's heavier than most, well-lavished, occasionally thinking outside the box, from the heart, but in the end, grossly predictable.

Having spent many times in the company of both Mike Justian and Trevor Phipps and once joke-threatened by the rest of the group to have my Beatles shirt hauled right off my back, I personally have nothing but love for Unearth. These guys are downhome goofballs offstage and pure powerhouses on. Darkness in the Light is a damned good album for 2006 and even 2008, but for Unearth to keep their crusade pounding into the future, there will need to be more chances taken like "Equinox" before their core fan base grows up and out of them.

Rating: ***1/2

Friday, July 15, 2011

Album Review: Brent Hinds - Fiend Without a Face/West End Motel

Brent Hinds - Fiend Without a Face/West End Motel
2011 Rocket Science
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Mastodon have, of course, created their own legend in the metal world. Revered is hardly the word to apply to what may be, along with Opeth, the greatest metal unit birthed of this generation.

The legend of Brent Hinds, however, will undeniably stake itself. It's not just because he's the scruffy hombre spotted front and center in Mastodon, but now because of this revelatory exposition to a very unserious side of the man. As complicated and intricate as Mastodon's music is, it will come as a shocker to anyone approaching Hinds' side work as to just what they'll be treated to.

Fiend Without a Face and West End Motel are two of Brent Hinds' offshoot bands. Fiend Without a Face finds Brent fronting a surf 'n twang mockabilly band from a few years back. While psychobilly is best defined as Setzer-meets-slam, Fiend Without a Face is even more inherently nutty than Rob Zombie's looney find, Captain Clegg and The Night Creatures. On the flipside, how to best describe West End Motel? Good question.

It's pretty easy to say Fiend Without a Face is chemically inbred on the vibes of The Cramps, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Brian Sezter, Dick Dale, Duane Eddy, Reverend Horton Heat, The Bomboras and The Koffin Cats. Hinds and his hicks from hell make no pretentions in slapping down strictly for kicks on "Calypso," "Black Grass," "Green Slime," "Hot Rod" and "Tsunami." Later in the album, Fiend Without a Face turns the dime on itself with a few hard rock and bluesy numbers, but overall, its primary purpose is to just shitkick, not much else. At times, Hinds ralphs and wahoos like a country werewolf, but it's all part of the shtick and all part of the fun. All that's missing here is the beans and the subsequent squeezy farts, because Fiend Without a Face is a total gas.

West End Motel is perhaps even more bonkers, as if Hinds had some sort of brain crash in-between recording Mastodon's Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye, then submitted himself to marathon viewings of Paint Your Wagon and Southern Comfort, then slipped into The White Album and an audile pool of zydeco. "The Devil Called Me Tommy" alone is like some weird crash between The Beatles' "Let's Do It On the Road" and the cajun stylings of The Pine Leaf Boys. Then "I Like It a Lot" is one goofy ride filled with accordion, piano and slide guitar amidst the haunted punk groove. "I Like It a Lot" gets this writer's vote for inclusion on the inevitable Return of the Living Dead remake's soundtrack.

Don't get too settled with West End Motel, because Hinds has a couple other tricks to pelt you with, such as "She's On Fire," (another contender for that hypothetical ROTLD soundtrack) which comes off like a downhome take on The Cure or Joy Division. Even Hinds' voice dips into Ian Curtis territory as "She's On Fire," wallowing like he's got a bug up his ass but hardly has a real axe to grind. Then for even more diversity, "Under My Skin" comes off like a Neil Young swoon about absolutely nothing.

That's the spirit of both of Brent Hinds' projects. If you think you're getting anywhere close to Mastodon's "Blood and Thunder" or "Divinations," check yourself before spinning these mini-albums. If West End Motel's "Silly Song" and Fiend Without a Face's "Stupido" aren't indicators of what you're getting here, it's your own damn fault. Do remember Hinds is partially responsible for songs such as "March of the Fire Ants" and "Mother Puncher," so naturally the inner kid needed released outside of the mondo mathematic construct of Mastodon.

Only Hee Haw has more southern-fried lunacy than this. At least Hinds didn't get wallopped in the ass by a fence board, though he might've took it that way upon learning his Fiend Without a Face tracks were leaked online for free by an uber-fan. There's a reason Reprise/Warner Brothers isn't touching this stuff since there's a limited huckleberry appeal to Fiend Without a Face and West End Motel. Still, if you're a geek for Mastodon or you enjoy your funny bone plucked musically, step up to these nerdy ponies and ride.

Rating: ****

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Album Review: Crossfade - We All Bleed

Crossfade - We All Bleed
Eleven Seven Music
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

For whatever reason, stripping down from an ensemble to a trio rewarded Crossfade with a hit in 2006 on Falling Away. Now, the South Carolina radio rockers beef up to a quartet (not counting a gaggle of session players) and better yet, beef up their artistry for this year's We All Bleed, an album that should come as a surprise, not to Crossfade's fans, but everyone else.

This isn't the cheeriest band you'll ever come across. While most of Crossfade's FM peers cash in on images as party animals or mope-a-dopes, there's an honesty to this band you can't deny. They know they can sell albums yet instead of selling the sure thing, Crossfade opts to do something with We All Bleed and, goddamn, it's a success!

"Dead Memories" is a jumpy opening number with plenty of push and shove. The exciting tempo it establishes with a double hammmer groove and sweeping riffs gives this album a ton of promise. The next song, however, immediately changes the mood. No surprise, though, if you're familiar with Crossfade's writing modes. If "Killing Me Inside" didn't have a lot of texture and a space vacuum quality behind its slow drag, one might consider it ill-advised that Crossfade skid the undeniable momentum thundered out by "Dead Memories." Even by their own intentionally morose means. To its credit, though, "Killing Me Inside" grows in intensity on the furnace blast of Ed Sloan and Les Hall's titanic guitar sculpts and patience leads to satisfaction.

"Prove You Wrong" is where Crossfade seeks its next chart-climbing "Cold" and "Invicible," a heat-seeking radio strike filled with the usual chunk-hum, chunk-hum agro-meets-pop structure. Difference here, however, is how efficiently "Prove You Wrong" handles its business. It's the rare AOR jam which you feel like you've missed something because of how quick and tidy Crossfade executes it.

"Lay Me Down" might've suffered greatly had Crossfade not exploded all over the solo section and those rippling solos carry forward into the final stanza of the otherwise lumbering tune. For once, a hard rock band playing in this style delivers a freaking payoff! Les Hall's dandy piano work here and on "Prove You Wrong" signal the typical would-be-slickness of Crossfade's power pack contemporaries. Yet because this band are such strong songwriters, let it all come in the decorative measures Hall and Crossfade intend them.

"Dear Cocaine" likewise keeps a low-key swirl driven largely on an acoustic lace and reserved beat pattern until Crossfade pours the lava with wah pedals, meaty chords and Mitch James' empathetic vocals. James, along with Ed Sloan, really knock out homeruns on the mike together, and Les Hall keeps their parallel octaves in check. In a way, "Dead Cocaine" plays its hand similar to Black Label Society, even if lacking a superstar name like Zakk Wylde in their fold. The subsequent anti-ballad "Suffocate" is full of rare emotion encased within an obvious commercial vibe. Once again, its the extracurriculars Crossfade puts into "Suffocate" (i.e. strings, keys, gut-punching singing and a magnificent shred solo) that really defines who and what this group is about.

Crossfade are to be commended because you can feel the inner turmoil on just how much to stray to one side or the other in their song structuring. Part of We All Bleed seems tailored as an audition why Crossfade should be hitting the circuit on a bill with Red, Drowning Pool, Apocalyptica and Skillet. After all, Crossfade are platinum sellers in their own right.

Still, they tailor these songs with class, dignity and best of all, personality. We All Bleed may stay stuck in a shambling mode for most of the ride, yet Crossfade is so graceful about it, particularly when they have enough respect for themselves to pile on the layers and give their compositions actual character. It makes all the difference as to whether an obvious tear-jerker like "I Think You Should Know" is fluff or heavy in the proper sense.

Every time you think Crossfade is about to sell out their tunes on We All Bleed, they come right back and, forgive the awful pun, prove you wrong. This is an album that should've failed because of its bleak crawl and inherent mainstream tendencies, yet it adversely comes off as a huge standout of its ilk. This is easily the most listenable and well-functioned AOR-bred album that's come along in ages. At this point, Crossfade's fans are probably considering DJ Tony Byroads an afterthought.

Every so often, the radio giants actually make a statement.

Rating: ****

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Whattya Listenin' to Wednesday - 7/13/11

Greetings, all, as always, I hope everybody is faring well and keeping your heads up amidst these life-changing events around us, both good and bad.

Not much to comment on this week as my body is wracked from the move and I nearly plucked my eyeball out with a screwdriver over the weekend, instead gouging the side of my nose. The pain was nothing after the first few minutes, though it was an ugly, bloody cut. In the end, sobering to realize the minute fraction of inches between annoying graze and a very serious accident. So I'm thanking God and the universe for bailing me out of that one and moving forward.

We'll be picking up the leftover agenda here at The Metal Minute and likely add the new Arch Enemy to the schedule as well, so do come back. Lata...

Anthrax - Among the Living
Anthrax - Fistful of Metal
Anthrax - Spreading the Disease
Anthrax - We've Come For You All
White Orange - s/t
Bad Company - Live at Wembley
Kyuss - Blues For the Red Sun
Kyuss - And the Circus Leaves Town
Rush - Caress of Steel
Rush - Fly By Night
Rush - A Farewell to Kings
Wendy Carlos - Tron soundtrack
Daft Punk - Tron: Legacy soundtrack
Tron: Legacy Reconfigured
Beatles - Help!
Beatles - A Hard Day's Night
Beatles - Rubber Soul
Beatles - Revolver
Ramones - s/t
Ramones - Leave Home
Ramones - Rocket to Russia
Ramones - Road to Ruin
Young Fresh Fellows - This One's For the Ladies
Kraftwerk - Tour de France
Division of Laura Lee - Black City
The Civil Wars - Barton Hallow

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Album Review: White Orange - s/t

White Orange - s/t
2011 Made in China Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

While everyone in their mother in the sludge underground has been riding the rails Josh Homme has dropped on his way as a would-be anti-hipster, the Kyuss-worshipping acolytes out there the past few years have brought a mixed bag of results. Repetition is not necessarily the purest form of flattery.

At least some bands, like Portland's White Orange, remember to twist the scheme with other variables to their trippy, mucky form of psych rock. Try a little shake of Hawkwind with dabs of The White Stripes, Mudhoney and the Melvins, and you're getting close to what White Orange's capabilities are in morphing their Kyuss-grounded fuzz jams.

Pretty considerable, when you catch a ticking vibe out the gate on "Where" that transitions into a tasty bob 'n nod jam, while "Middle of the Riddle" might be a demonstrative replication of where Josh Homme was swimming mentally before starting Queens of the Stone Age. Somewhere in that song is a wallowy portal where distortion and transluence meet. Ditto for "Dinosaur Bones," which rides its mid-tempo crash on the spook of a curious alt haunt. Here is where White Orange seeks to distance themselves from comparison. "Dinosaur Bones" is and is what you think it's going to be, and once it takes its own leap of faith into a pool of distortion, White Orange does so in explorative manner. Better yet, they remember to quickly step back into the foundation of the song instead of drowning in ersatz.

White Orange does get pretty danged weird (i.e. "Wonderful," "Sunspots" and "Kill the Kids"), but if you've spent any time at all around the Sub Pop, Enigma and SST labels, you're well-acclimated to the experimental droning, chunky riffs and milky vocal swerves of Dustin Hill. Hill's gurgling huffs are sometimes akin to cutting loose in front of a floor fan, and they suit White Orange's spaced-out lunacy. They may not sound like they know what they're doing at times, but most assuredly they do. The wah-filled soloing on "Kill the Kids" and "Sunspots" is proof enough.

Still, White Orange isn't necessarily for everyone. While they know how to grab an ear with some volume and some well-grounded hooks, these later serve more as groundwork to tinker about overtop the longer this album grinds on. White Orange has an appreciable knack for decorating the obvious. As the album continues on its unknown (from the listener's POV) path, Kyuss meets Sonic Youth (i.e. "Sunspots" and "Save Me") and happily jumps into Hawkwind's mystical space toaster. You'll either be baking with White Orange or you'll be asking for the next shuttle out of their zero-g nebula.

Not a slam on this band whatsoever. White Orange is a rather creative unit who offers their audience far more than the usual nod to "Turbo Blimp Jumbo" and "50 Million Year Trip (Downside Up)." It helps to spin Kyuss' Blues For the Red Sun before coming to White Orange, just so you have the proper mindset. Their swampy yet astral "Sigourney Weaver" is more inventive than implied, particularly if you throw yourself somewhere between Aliens and Gorillas in the Mist. Only someone who's subjected himself to Kyuss every afternoon before band practice could come up with something so bold.

Rating: ***1/2

Monday, July 11, 2011

DVD Review: Bad Company - Live at Wembley

Bad Company - Live at Wembley
2011 Eagle Vision
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

You sometimes forget just how many major hits Bad Company has until you witness them all loaded up like a stockade of trusty rock 'n roll arms. While "Feel Like Makin' Love" is perhaps the goodtime sex anthem for the ages, Bad Company is hardly a one-trick pony.

What's always been fascinating about Bad Company beyond its chemical makeup of Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke of Free, Mott the Hoople's Mick Ralphs and original bass player Boz Burrell from King Crimson is the fact a corral of Brits wholly captured the essence of American Southern rock with an occasional twist of prog.

You could fool a fool or two in some weathered off-road juke joint by saying "Can't Get Enough," "Simple Man," "Ready for Love," "Shooting Star," "Bad Company" and of course, "Feel Like Makin' Love" were knocked out by a strongarm section of diehard Savannah rebs. Even though "Rock and Roll Fantasy" has a bit of disco swing considering the year it came out on 1979's Desolation Angels, Bad Company's tappity gloss-up over the music industry's alluring stranglehold over people is still pure bang on top of its sway. It feels like pure Americana, but check again. It's the Union Jack swinging behind Bad Company.

Bad Company's records may not always have gained mass critical acclaim beyond the 1974 self-titled album and Straight Shooter the following year. Push to shove, however, this is a band most consider one of the first authentic "supergroups." Together they've sold millions and have left a sizable cluster of well-loved ditties the fans are sure to love on their new Live at Wembley album and DVD.

While Mick Ralphs and Simon Kirke failed to garnish much interest in their Bad Company resurrections minus Paul Rodgers, the 1999 official reunion of the group brought about hopes of a true comeback. Unfortunately, all that culminated in this get-together was The Original Bad Company Anthology which at least included a few new tracks. Worse, Boz Burrell died in 2006, which prompted Bad Company with three leftover original members in 2008 to once again hit the arena trail in his honor.

Live at Wembley is a Bad Company performance captured last year which stands up as one of the band's finest hours, three-fifths represented they may be. For the record, Bad Company is now rounded out by guitarist Howard Leese and bassist Lynn Sorensen. While the sold-out UK concertgoers are often reserved and often emphatic, the Wembley homecoming of Bad Company is a pretty humbling experience to behold. So much even Paul Rodgers has to ask his audience how they're doing, and it's not just a typical stage plug. There's a detectable sense of nervousness between Rodgers and the crowd. Bad Company is well in the pocket of their set through "Can't Get Enough," "Honey Child," "Run With the Pack," "Burnin' Sky." It's after their laidback cover of The Coasters' "Young Blood" where Rodgers checks his listeners for a pulse and they begin to respond. Granted, Rodgers does get Wembley to participate right out the gate during "Can't Get Enough," but it's obvious how much performing in his native land means to him.

You know what the people are expecting. They're no different than American beer bellies squeezing through the aisles for a freshening up of the suds before the hallowed party jams in Bad Company's set arrives. While there's a huge upswing in the Wembley crowd when "Feel Like Makin' Love," "Shooting Star," "Rock 'n Roll Fantasy," "Movin' On" and "Ready For Love" sieve out, Bad Company does keep the set well-engaged with "Gone Gone Gone," "Seagull" and "Simple Man." The latter two are perfectly translated with gorgeous acoustic intros and they remind people there's artistry beyond the straight-up whumping to Bad Company.

"Bad Company" live is easily the band's rally cry, because Wembley is full-on electric by the time Rodgers steps up to the piano and plunks down the first few notes. Whatever their walks of life, the Bad Company fans are united rebels in an unknown cause, simply by caterwauling "Bad Company's" chorus in tandem. Again, no different than their eastern counterparts. "Bad Company" is an instant insurrection and it should be considered a metal genesis tune along with "Burnin' Sky," "Simple Man" and "Ready For Love."

More superficially satisfying than hearing these nuggets scattered ad nauseum on classic rock stations, Live at Wembley is a professional and enthusiastic recreation of Bad Company's golden years. It may be disarming to some to see a couple of grayhairs peeling off tremolos in front of Marshall stacks, but show your respect, because Bad Company does likewise, for Boz during "Shooting Star" and most importantly, for their fans. This is a well-intended set for hit lovers and music heads. It's much more radioactive than Rodgers and The Firm and for many, it's Bad Company 'til they die...

Rating: ****

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Poll Question: Has 3-D Become Passe?

Not to say that it's any surprise the movie industry is all about making a buck, but one would think it had enough foresight to know when it has beaten a prize horse to death.

Never mind Hollywood has sought to lure Gen X viewers back to the theaters to re-sell them their youth in the form of remakes. Everything from The Karate Kid to Arthur to Clash of the Titans to A Nightmare On Elm Street has been rehashed for both nostalgic older filmgoers and their youngsters who naturally missed out on all the fun back in the day. The Star Wars franchise has at least remained relevant to pop culture utilizing fresh, new material and as a result, we can honestly say there's a unique Star Wars generation for today and yesteryear.

However, just as toy manufacturers exploit working class parents by ramming their old playthings back up their wazoos as irresistible bait to their kids, so too does the film industry, acting in cahoots. The Smurfs are coming, The Smurfs are coming... Hopefully He-Man stays on Eternia. Dare we think back upon Dolph Lundgren's ill-fated Masters of the Universe live action film way back when? Krull is a superior eighties fantasy vehicle and that's saying nothing.

The onslaught of today's superhero films are undeniably a collective cash cow, albeit for those of us who grew up reading comic books to idle our afternoons away instead of the internet, these films are a dream come true and most of them are awesome. Particularly if you've ever seen the earlier efforts to translate The Punisher and Captain America to film, oy...

Then there's 3-D. Sure, there's something fun and magical about three dimensional films. If there's any genres better suited to 3-D than others, it's horror and science fiction, though today's CGI animation style translates into the 3-D realm quite effectively. However, the modern popcorn film is now defined as any damn film the industry wants to overhaul in the hopes you plop down a few extra bucks for the "experience" of images jumping into your lap while gnawing on those poofy kernals. If you spill your popcorn in reaction to sudden propulsions from the screen, then the theater is rather happy to sell you more at their inflated prices.

Hate to say it like an old fogie, but 3-D used to be special. You didn't have it very often back in the day. One of the first acknowledged 3-D films is Vincent Price's 1953 classic, House of Wax, one of the many horror films that has been remade in this generation of filmmaking--and to be fair, the new film was far better than anyone could've expected and guess what? It didn't use 3-D! Enjoy the irony.

While 3-D experiments in film go back even further to The Three Stooges' 1949 short "The Ghost Talks," one might say the medium wasn't wholly battle-tested until recent times. Gorilla at Large from 1954 came out as more a gimmick amidst the slew of theatrical gags during the fifties. Consider another Vincent Price favorite, The Tingler, actually buzzed your seat in the theater when the monster showed up. Nowadays, the wiring and insurance would sink such an enterprise before the final print was mastered. Gorilla at Large, however, was a clunker B movie that really looked terrible when they tried to translate the film as 3-D onto UHF t.v. stations. Today, you have 3-D televisions. Again, enjoy the irony.

The eighties represent what is today known as the "blockbuster" film. The decade set a precedent for action, horror, comedy and fantasy films, most of which turned monster profits. While not every film of the decade was a classifiable E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark, it did try (with mediocre success) to revive 3-D in the form of Jaws 3-D, Friday the 13th Part III, Amityville 3-D and the seldom-seen cult favorite, Metalstorm. Even the sixth Nightmare on Elm Street film, Freddy's Dead had a portion done up in 3-D. It brought people into the theaters, but not as many as Hollywood projected back then. Of these, the Friday sequel turned the best profit and many might argue it's one of the finest 3-D romps ever, even if the film is merely a kickback guilty pleasure in 2-D.

While 3-D films mostly took a powder through the nineties, you did see revival 3-D comic books in the underground press and then you had Voivod's The Outer Limits album, which comes packaged in 3-D. The Outer Limits, in my opinion, is one of the grooviest 3-D packages there is.

It's no secret 3-D has boomed in the 2000s. On the one hand, horror flicks such as My Bloody Valentine 3-D, The Final Destination and the Pirhana remake are bloody good fun as the 3-D spectacles they're intended to be. Outside of 3-D, however, they can't even compete against Roger Corman's worst.

So now Hollywood opts to shoot contender "blockbuster" films in 2-D and doll them up into 3-D. Today, 3-D is so state-of-the-art you don't need to take the time and expense to film it in 3-D. Just set up the shots, because technology can run those images from a 2-D plane to 3-D and ye-bang, instant marketing boost. Helps the cause for manufacturing DVDs and Blu Rays when the original print lies in 2-D. The 2010 Clash of the Titans remake was one of the first to be called out by critics for employing this cheapo strategm and when you watch the so-so 2-D version, you're even more offended. Clash 2010 was every bit a gimmick as its cheapo ancestor, Gorilla at Large.

Then, of course, there's gold in them thar hills for turning kid films into 3-D ventures. What better impressionable demographic is there than children, who badger the snot out of their parents to take them to the movies? When Shrek, Kung-Fu Panda and the Toy Story clan jump in your laps, the kids think of instant fun. Hollywood hears cha-ching...

Here's the thing, though. It's become almost remarkable now to see a new movie trailer without the 3-D tag. Whether you're going to see Green Lantern, Tron: Legacy, Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides or the final Harry Potter film, you're given the option to see it in 2-D or 3-D. While many have cited Tron: Legacy as a 3-D spectacle, I caught it in 2-D and didn't feel I was missing out on too much beyond a few slo-mo in-your-face moments. Many of those who caught Tron: Legacy in 2-D gave it a thumbs-down, so consider that food for thought.

I personally feel the final Harry Potter film going in 3-D is a cheap shot by the industry to rake in on what should by now be considered the epic storytale of this generation, Lord of the Rings notwithstanding. Harry was written in the now and filmed in the now and we're forever endeared to those children who grew up before our eyes. The final stanza of The Deathly Hallows is often brutal and emotional. That should be enough to lure people into the theaters. Having it as a 3-D experience is obviously just too much for Hollywood to resist, given the big battle in the wizarding world opens the door for huge possibilities to throw shit at viewers. Really, though, since none of the previous films came out in 3-D (though they threatened to in the first half of The Deathly Hallows), do we really need 3-D to finish it all? So long as we get to see Harry kiss Ginny and ditto for Ron and Hermione at the end, then damn you, Hollywood, quit dicking with it.

How do you feel about 3-D, readers? Too much fun or simply too much?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Whattya Listenin' to Wednesday - 7/6/11

Howdy, howdy...

Hope everyone had a fun and safe 4th of July. Too bad a couple of people in Baltimore can't say they did, given they were shot and stabbed during the fireworks show at the city's Inner Harbor. Freaking cowardice makes me sick.

But on a nicer note, let's get those playlists coming, huh? Don't be shy, don't think you're a dork, don't act like you're too cool. I see you coming by and checking everyone else's lists. Be a player, not a watcher. As you can see by my list this week, I had an avalanche of spins between my office desk and working in the new place trying to get these damned boxes out of my sight and get my important matters addressed. Music keeps it flowing. You know it, I know it. So tell me, whattya listenin' to, people?

Coming up at The Metal Minute, we'll be checking out new joints from Unearth, White Orange, Possessor, Crossfade, Bad Company and Brent Hinds, so we'll see ya again, yea?

Queensryche - Empire
Queensryche - Operation: Mindcrime
Queensryche - Q2K
Queensryche - Dedicated to Chaos
Pagan's Mind - Heavenly Ecstasy
S.O.D. - Speak English Or Die
Illuminati - On Borrowed Time
Crescent Shield - The Last of My Kind
Crescent Shield - The Stars of Never Seen
Gonin-Ish - Naisikyo-Sekai
Discharge - Clay Punk Singles
Tommy Bolin - Whips and Roses I and II
Dream Theater - Black Clouds and Silver Linings
Ratt - Infestation
DRI - Dealing With It
White Orange - s/t
Geddy Lee - My Favorite Headache
Deep Purple - Come Taste the Band
KMFDM - WWIII Live 2003
The (International) Noise Conspiracy - Survival Sickness
The (International) Noise Conspiracy - The First Conspiracy
The (International) Noise Conspiracy - A New Morning, Changing Weather
The (International) Noise Conspiracy - "Reproduction of Death" maxi-single
The (International) Noise Conspiracy - "Capitalism Stole My Virginity" maxi-single
The (International) Noise Conspiracy - Bigger Cages, Longer Chains
The (International) Noise Conspiracy - Armed Love
Down By Law - Punkrockacademyfightsong
Siouxsie and the Banshees - Join Hands
Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle
Kraftwerk - Autobahn
Kraftwerk - Tour de France
Bell X1 - Bloodless Coup
James Brown - Sex Machine & Other Soul Classics
Cake - Showroom of Compassion
The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
Ted Leo - Living With the Living
Ted Leo and The Pharmacists - Tyranny of Distance

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Album Review: Pagan's Mind - Heavenly Ecstasy

Pagan's Mind - Heavenly Ecstasy
2011 SPV Steamhammer
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Depending on your point of view, Pagan's Mind 2011 isn't quite the same band that recorded Infinity Divine more than a decade ago. No disrespect intended by that statement, considering the tragic passing of founding guitarist Thorstein Aaby in 2007. We're talking more about the twisting identity of these well-respected Norwegian proggers.

For their fifth album Heavenly Ecstasy, Pagan's Mind keeps plugging into sockets luring them away from schematic prog metal as of their last album, God's Equation. Whereas many have favored easy comparisons to Dream Theater and Fate's Warning throughout the career of Pagan's Mind, it gets a bit easier this time around to say this group has gone even more linear with Heavenly Ecstasy. You might as well lump in vintage era Queensryche, Judas Priest, Savatage and mid-tempo Yngwie Malmsteen without the latter's blistering arpeggios.

While the proggiest of the prog metal fans will likely be tapping their lips in minor confusion after spinning the largely straightforward Heavenly Ecstasy, there's no denying this album rocks. Even with the 8:32 "Revelation to the End" and the album itself beating past 66 minutes (if you include the two bonus songs "Create Your Destiny" and "Power of Mindscape") there is a remarkable efficiency at work.

It's not out of the question to say Heavenly Ecstasy is the most accessible album Pagan's Mind has affixed its name to. Not exactly the most mainstream or sales-friendly band monikers ever conceived, Pagan's Mind is hardly the scalding inferno of antiGod ersatz one would expect coming into this group blind. If you've been following this band, sure, that's quite a dumb statement, but the swinging and swaying pop rocker "Live Your Life Like a Dream" is only a few notches heavier than Journey or REO Speedwagon. Seriously. Pagan's Mind plays this song and most of the album like they're eighties arena-bound. Ronny Tegner's key solo on "Live Your Life Like a Dream" sends a demonstrative statement that not every synth sequence is uber-geeky and sometimes serves the song more than anyone could've imagined. The outro to "Never Walk Alone," despite Stian Kristoffersen's rampant double hammer might as well round out a Toto gig, and that's not a crap-on to the band.

By all means, Heavenly Ecstasy is not a wimpy venture, even though many folks might cringe by the 2:03 ballad "When Angels Unite." Most of these tunes are brick heavy like "Follow Your Way," "Create Your Destiny," "Eyes of Fire," "Into the Aftermath" and the "The Master's Voice." The thing with this album is that Pagan's Mind can dirty things up, such as letting Nils K. Rue throw in some demonic vocals on "The Master's Voice" despite his longing croons and the overall cadence amidst the perpetual thump. It's part of their shtick, even if Epica has well-dallied with the same schism.

The main theme on this album, however, is pure musicality. Whether you want Pagan's Mind to stay evil when they randomly skulk into those moods, their primary mindset is to reel their listeners in with as many hooks as they can get away with. Period. There's a dime a dozen black metal artists in their native region, as there are folk and prog metallers. At least Pagan's Mind appears to be playing a game of mind rape with their fans to stay relevant and more power to them. Infinity Divine and Celestial Entrance are already cult classics, but a song like "Never Walk Alone" on Heavenly Ecstasy which daringly treads between chunk 'n crunk and elevated effervesence is what's going to make the career extended difference for this group.

Rating: ****