Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Unida- Coping with the Urban Coyote (1999)

Let’s do a bit of review suicide here and start off with a cliché. Lighting strikes twice for John Garcia. (It actually seems to strike a lot more than that for him, but that comes later in his career)

Coping with the Urban Coyote is the sole official release of Unida, the second post-Kyuss project featuring John Garcia, crunchier and more energetic than ever. What can you expect from a short lived band whose primary claim to fame is that the vocalist used to be in Kyuss? Unida delivers everything, especially riffs, they‘re fat, loud, and memorable. The Rhythm section is downright masterful, with some especially inspiring bass portions, and as for the voice of desert rock himself? If anything, Garcia’s voice has aged with style. In the 4 years since the breakup of Kyuss, he’s developed a fuller tone, with better expression and much more confidence. Tracks like “If Only Two”, and “Human Torpedo” feature a grittier, tougher Garcia, and a downright pounding rhythm.

Garcia isn’t musically illiterate by any means, and the composing credits go to Unida as a whole, but guitarist Arthur Seay is a big part of that formula. For fans of Kyuss, this record has a lot more in common with songs like “Green Machine” and “Conan Troutman” than “Freedom Run” or “Whitewater”.

The rhythm section delivers two downright monstrous performances in “If Only Two” and “You Wish”, and then a bunch of other solid backings in the other 6 tracks. The most remarkable thing about “Coping with the urban coyote” is that there isn’t a weak track to be seen. Even some of the best metal albums have the unnecessary ballad or the space-wasting filler. Unida has no need for such crutches. Being that I’ve referenced it for both it’s stellar vocal performance, and the quality of the rhythm section, I’d have to say “If Only Two” is my favorite song on the record, it’s got the heavy bass rolling, a killer riff, and Garcia pushing his voice to the limit.

Despite the criminal under appreciation that Unida received, “Coping with the Urban Coyote” is an essential part in any metalhead’s collection. Get it now, get it fast, you won’t regret it

Monday, April 25, 2011

Some updates

I realize that I'm getting increasingly worse at posting reviews every month, that's got a lot to do with my class load this semester. I wanted to just give some stuff on the future of the blog.
First of all. I'm now doing reviews over at Black Wind Metal (Blackwindmetal.blogspot.com)
This is where the bulk of my metal reviews will be going.

Second of all, this does not mean I have any plans on closing this blog. In fact, I want to get to 3 posts a week in May, the content however, is going to focus on Stoner Rock, some Prog rock, and my continuing quest to have an archive of reviews for every Buckethead solo album, and eventually every album released with his various bands and guest appearances. I fully intend on having at least 75% of Buckethead's solo albums (If not 100%) reviewed by the end of the summer. I will also be working on complete review archives for Kyuss, Sleep, and as many associated bands as I can get my hands on. I'll probably work through Kyuss, then sleep.

As always, I'll review anything anyone asks me to, so if you have something you'd like to see reviewed, or a lesser known artist you'd like to see get some promotion (What little viewership I have), I'd be happy to review it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Symfonia- In Paradisium (2011)

Cheesy name, Cheesier cover, Tolkki is lucky he remembered how to write heavy riffs, because this had disaster waiting to happen all over it. Symfonia is the third band that Timo Tolkki has been a member of in the last 4 years, In Paradisium is his 5th album in that same time period. From abominations in the name of music like “Saana: Warrior of Light Pt. I” (Sorry Timo, I get that it was a deeply personal work of art and all, but it just didn’t succeed in what it could have been.) To absolute gems like “Trinity”, Tolkki has been on a mad rush of recording and releasing music.

A brief history, Tolkki got tired of Stratovarius, the money situation was awful, and the band was getting dry. He released his metal opera (And I say metal only because that’s how Tolkki advertised it, I’m not even sure if it qualified as a rock opera) titled “Saana: Warrior of Light Pt. I”. With good reason, Pt. II never saw the light of day.

The next 3 albums were all recorded with TT’s new band, Revolution Renaissance. New Era was recorded by an “All star cast” which, outside of Tolkki consisted of two easily recognizable names, and the only people really pulling their weight on the record were the members that TT borrowed from Thunderstone. After this, TT got a real band together, of experienced but mostly unknown musicians from all around the world.

Age of Aquarius took a darker direction previously unseen in TT’s music, but suffered from being rushed to the studio and many of the songs seemed incomplete or unpolished. In 2010, Tolkki announced that Revolution Renaissance would do one more album and disband. This caused a lot of fans to not even bother with “Trinity”, and I can’t say I blame them for ignoring a record from a band that’s already announced it will disband. This is a shame though, because Trinity was really the best of what RR was capable of. The vocal performances finally started to really improve, Tolkki’s guitar solos were stunning (Plagiarism controversy aside, that’s another story, but really, it isn’t a story at all), and the tempo and energy was both cranked up, something AoA lacked.

Strangely enough, right around this time, rumors surfaced about a lineup of a new band consisting of Andre Matos, Jari Kainluainen, Bob Katsionis, Uli Kusch, and Timo Tolkki. The name “Symfonia” was attached to the project. Given that it was only a forum post with nothing to back it up, it was regarded as a sort of pipe dream. Kusch and Matos had no previous association with Tolkki, and as far as the world was aware, Kainluainen and Tolkki weren’t exactly on speaking terms.

Oddly enough, the only part of the rumor that turned out to be false was the involvement of Katsionis, which is the part I thought was most logical. But here we are, with the release of “In Paradisium”. In case you didn't know, Symfonia features Andre Matos (A veteran of Angra and Shaaman, as well as his own solo career) on vocals, Timo Tolkki (A veteran of Stratovarius and Revolution Renaissance) on guitar, Mikko Harkin (Sonata Arctica, Mehida, Wingdom, a few others) on Keyboads, Uli Kusch (Gamma Ray, Helloween, Masterplan, others) on drums, and Jari Kainluainen (Stratovarius, Evergrey, Others) on bass.  Now you may note that the summary mentions little of the career troubles of the rest of the band. While Uli Kusch and Andre Matos in particular have intricate histories, ultimately the success or failure of this band will be pinned on Timo Tolkki.

---Review starts here---

Lets get to the basics. Symfonia is a cheesy name for a band. In Paradisium is a cheesy name for an album. The artwork features purple angels and a shiny city. Somewhere, Luca Turilli is pouting that he didn’t think of that first. Oh, and this is maybe Tolkki’s most “Metal” record since Infinite or Elements Pt. II.

The record is full to the brim with songs like “Fields of Avalon”, “Santiago”, “Forevermore”, “Rhapsody in Black”, and “I Walk in Neon”, powerful, with crunchy, Episode style guitars, soaring vocals, and brilliant solos. Uli Kusch lays down a monstrous drumming performance, and Matos is in really good form for his age.

On a lot of songs however, the real star is the most unknown member, Mikko Harkin. After an entire song of straight crushing power metal, Tolkki does something strange on Santiago and plays some very fruity and clean guitar solos. It’s a pretty nice contrast, but very strange. Right at the end of the solo, Tolkki’s guitar starts crunching again, and Harkin rips a keys solo aimed directly at the throne of Jens Johansson. Tolkki’s rebuttal is inspiring, it’s also one of the tightest solos he’s played in years. Something about this crop of new blood has really got him back on top of his game.

Come By the Hills is in this same mold. Tolkki showed some signs of really ripping on Trinity, but this is a more polished approach, that people are listening to, and its free of controversy. The solo isn’t that long, but he does a lot with it.

Rhapsody in Black is another really well done track in the mold that we haven’t seen from TT in a LONG time. The main riff is a killer, and it really pays tribute to the idea of head banging, something that Stratovarius never quite did. This was originally supposed to be the single, but I think the band ended up making the decision to release the title track for radio play instead. That was a mistake.

In Paradisium, the 9 and a half minute title track, was the first we heard from the album. Coupled with the artwork, this foreshadowed all sorts of awful things for the band. The song would have felt right at home on the “Destiny” record, except since that already had “Destiny” and “Anthem of the World”, it really had no place. The problem is that the song is at some parts, too repetitive, and others, really confusing. The intro choirs are a nice touch, but I would have preferred to start with a riff. There’s also the issue of the sound clips in the middle of the song, which seem to just feature children talking about how awful their lives are. What the fuck? It’s not an awful song, but it really suffers from some mistakes that (Fortunately) the rest of the album does not.

After In Paradisium, the band released an extended sample of the song “Pilgrim Road”. It’s very happy, with a slight tint of folk, and a hefty serving of cheese. It’s only 3 and a half minutes, a good deal shorter than the average song length on the record, which seems to float at a healthy 5 minutes. What’s important here is that Tolkki again proves that an old dog can learn new tricks, with quite the crafty, squeal-y, shred-y, guitar solo.

The last parts of this record to address are the “Obligatories” The two songs that appear on every Timo Tolkki or Timo Tolkki influence record in the last 15 years. The acoustic ballad, and the power ballad. In the “Power” category, is Alayna.  These have always been hit or miss for me. Sometimes, there are songs like “The land of Ice and Snow”, which are pulled off beautifully, with precision and care. Other times, you get bloated monstrosities like “4000 Rainy Nights”, which practically collapse on themselves with the pretentious cheese.

Having Matos sing these are risky business. His voice is far more nasally and potentially whiny that Kotipelto’s. I am glad though, that Alayna is restrained enough to not let anything really bad pass. I would say it’s no better or worse than “Fairness Justified” from Elysium. However, where I would usually say that the record could have gone without it, this one, especially the guitar solo, feels particularly inspired.

I was really hoping that “Don’t Let Me Go” would be a return to my favorite Tolkki standard, his inspiring classical acoustic parts. What always separated him from his peers in power metal was his ability to play a really beautiful acoustic ballad, only Blind Guardian was really on par in that department. The guitar parts are mostly just strumming, and its Matos’ Melodica that gives the song its character.

So in summary, I have to compliment this record on a lot of things. There is a lot of balance between some serious talent, the composing team of Tolkki and Matos is excellent, and with hopeful future contributions from Uli Kusch and Mikko Harkin, it will only get better. The band did stumble on the title track, and the overall presentation could use some work, but the music, for the most part, speaks for itself. Symfonia is here to stay.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Buckethead- The Elephant Mans Alarm Clock (2006)

What we have from Buckethead in this release is a heavy melodic album that focuses heavily on his riff writing and soloing. For the uninitiated, this sounds like every guitar virtuoso wankery album ever released. Coming from Bucket though, the listener is in for a real treat. I would highly recommend skipping the first track “Thai Fighter Swarm” on the first listen, because it’s a bit of an awkward piece, cramming together some hectic, oddly timed riffs together without much regard for the flow or melody. Sure, he’s earned the right to do that every once in awhile, but the album is much better enjoyed if you start at “Final Wars”.

Final Wars is what sets that tone, starting with a grooving distorted riff, then doubling up with two countermelodies, and then an excellent, melodic and thoughtful solo with lots of entertaining flair. That’s just the first 55 seconds of the song. Baseball Furies is built around a very heavy riff and features some  finger flashing shredding to make even the most technical players feel unworthy. Elephant Man’s Alarm Clock is more of the same, heavy riffs, fast soloing, and flashes of the twisted avant-garde mind of Buckethead. What defines the album is the centerpiece, inexplicably 4 part “Lurker at the Threshhold”. Altogether it clocks in at a bit under 10 minutes, with individual lengths of 4 minutes, 2 minutes, 2 minutes, and one and a half minutes.

Lurker at the Threshold opens with a minute and a half of quiet, subtle guitar aerobics, before jumping into a twisted riff and some excellent drum contributions. After two minutes, the tension begins to crescendo, and its released. Words as a means to describe music is always a tricky task, and this is especially true with Buckethead, which is I think part of why a lot of reviewers would shy away, but Lurker at the Threshold is a musical journey touching on all the best aspects of Buckethead’s playing. The riffs are tight and imposing and the solos are beautiful and striking. I don’t have the slightest clue what the inspiration behind the music was (The title is a Lovecraft reference), but it must have been something very complete. The song takes many unexpected twists and turns and is an overall exciting listen, a very rare feat for instrumental music.

Oakridge Cake (Tribute to Cool Keith) is a slower, more groove oriented song, with a down tuned, almost bass sounding syncopated riff and some occasional soloing here and there. Gigan is more upbeat, but with a similar structure of riffs and solos. It sounds boring, but its not. Both Droid Assembly is a mechanical sounding shred track with some really great drumming, has some of that awkwardness of “Thai Fighter Swarm” but mixes in with some really great grooves. Bird With A Hole In The Stomach has a composition resembling that of Final Wars, solid riffs, and better solos.

That leaves us with the last track of the album, the seemingly 11 minute Fizzy Lipton Drinks, it seems longer that Lurker at the Threshold by a good amount. It’s not. The first part is in line with the album’s heavier, more twisted, more avant-garde content. There’s a few minutes of silence, until Bucket strikes back at around 7 minutes with some furious funk breakdown, there’s about 5 minutes of this, and it’s absolutely pure. For the album’s better/more melodic content, this is an excellent starting point into the world of Buckethead, and one of his better works in recent years.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Cain's Offering- Gather the Faithful (2009)

“Gather the Faithful” is the debut album of ex-Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimitainen, with vocal work done by Timo Kotipelto (Stratovarius) and keyboards by Mikko Harkin (Also Ex-Sonata Arctica, currently with Symfonia and Mehida), and Jukka Koskinen (Nother and Wintersun) on bass. Drums are provided by Jani Hurula, who I’ve never heard of before and seems to have no significant contributions before or since.

The album is a collection of 10 fairly straightforward power metal songs, one of which is an intrumental, and the remaining 9 are an even balance of uptempo, mid tempo, and balladry. The album was written entirely by Jani Liimitainen, and he has some absolutely killer guitar riffs, but what stood out to me the most about this release was the production balance. Each song achieves an incredible sound balance where the bass, drums, guitar, and keys are all distinct. In a genre where the bass is usually mixed as low as possible, this gives the album a lot of freshness. While the double bass drum assault is nothing new to power metal, Jani Hurula does a very good job of keeping up with some of the genre’s best veterans, and has a very crisp and aggressive style.

Mikko Harkin is as impressive as he’s ever been, although he’s a student from the Jens Johansson school of keyboard shredding, he provides a lot of variety and symphonic elements, especially on songs like “Gather the Faithful”, and “Morpheus in a Masquerade”. As for Jani’s guitar work, his skills are on full display in “Dawn of Solace”, “Stolen Waters”, and “My Queen Of Winter” and are just as impressive as he’s ever been in his career.

As for Timo Kotipelto, it’s obvious that Jani has a much clearer grasp on what his voice is good at than Timo Tolkki was. While TK has a very impressive range, and has sung some real power metal anthems, he is much more natural singing in the middle high ranges. With less strain on his voice to reach the high notes, his unique voice and strong tone take better shape and it becomes a much more pleasing experience for the listener. The ballads on this album (“Elegantly Broken”, and “Into the Blue”) are much more interesting than the ballads Timo had been singing recently in Stratovarius for this reason.

Where “Gather the Faithful” falters is that while it is fresh up on explosive speedy tracks with great melodies, there isn’t a song that really presents anything earth shattering, or failing that, the traditional “Power Metal epic”, So while every song on the album is great in its own right, and it has no weak songs, it lacks a few of the pieces to make it a landmark release. Absolutely worth a listen though.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Symfonia- Finnish Metal Expo show

I haven't heard this entire show yet, only a few songs from it. But I've heard enough of the new material, and seen the setlists, read the blog posts, whatnot, that I think I have something interesting to say about Symfonia.

First off, I am so glad the band is a reality, that songs are being released, and shows are being played. It seems like with Tolkki, all too often does he talk big and not deliver, RR as a Stratovarius album, Return to Dreamspace, The first Hymn to Life book, an RR world tour, ect...

Rumors of Symfonia actually came months before the announcement, and what the rumor originally said was Matos/Kusch/Jari/Tolkki/ and Bob Katsionis.

Of those, my original thought was that only Katsionis really made sense. Tolkki had already fired Jari once, but then I remembered that Tolkki is a big fan of Ritchie Blackmore, and in historical relevance, Ritchie Blackmore fired Roger Glover (Bassist as well) from Deep Purple before hiring him back into Rainbow.

These are all guys that left a big impact on their respective bands, and left for bigger and better things, only to find out that they couldn't catch lightning twice so easily, and they all REALLY need this gig to work. I like that, because although they all have pretty big egos, this I think should humble them a bit.

But, onto the show, the (Incomplete) setlist was as follows.
1.Fields of Avalon 
2.Come by the Hills 
3.I Did it my Way 
5.Lasting Child  
7.Rhapsody in Black 

I like, a lot, Fields of Avalon and Come By the Hills, from samples, sound like great high octane energetic songs, especially Fields of Avalon. I Did it My Way was an RR tune, it's now been sung by Kotipelto, Kiske, Matos, and probably Gus Monsanto at some point. Damn.

The big surprise here is Dreamspace. I love this song to death, it's an artifact from a very early time in Tolkki's career, and it lets him take some material from Stratovarius, without seeming like he's trying to hold onto the "Golden era", and the thought of hearing that with Matos on vocals is really exciting. Lasting Child is an Angra tune, I was never a fan of it, but whatever. Stratosphere is another interesting selection, because it's by no means Strato's best or most famous instrumental, but still very good. I like that.

The last 3 songs are what I've heard on video, and so this is where I stop reviewing the character of the band, and go onto actually reviewing material.

The first is Rhapsody in Black, Tolkki has said this is the album's single. Tolkki has said in interviews that he was a bit worried about pop influences, and Rhapsody in Black has a very "Pop" groove to its main riff, but it's undeniably power metal. Oddly enough, listening to it I can't help but think that it doesn't sound too different from the material on "Twilight Time" That's a very good thing. Matos sounds great on it, of the three I've heard, its my favorite song, (But I have high hopes for fields of Avalon). The other two tracks, Pilgrim Road, and Forever More, impress me first because they make very good use of Matos' voice, especially Pilgrim Road.Everything is in place for not only a very good band/album, but an interesting one, with a lot of power metal these days, they're executing very well, but not doing anything particularly interesting with that execution.

Now, onto the studio track "In Paradisium". I'll keep it short because I want to do a full review of this when it comes out, what, this month? Tolkki obviously sat down with the intention to write a 10 minute song here. It's all here, the sweeping choruses, the fake orchestra sounds, everything that would have felt right at home on Destiny or Infinite, but the actual song layout mirrors "Visions". The vocal lines fall into the same traps that RR did, that I can't listen to it without thinking that it was really written for Kotipelto, and the refrain of the choruses isn't particularly interesting. On the other hand, the more uptempo sections and the solos are entertaining. Mikko Harkin does some really great stuff, and for people not willing to delve into his Christian metal projects, it will be refreshing to hear him again. Tolkki is obviously trying very hard to be power metal and epic with this song, and had he had some good creative advice, he might have cut this down by 3-4 minutes and made it a really powerful song.

So, what does this mean we should expect from the Symfonia debut? Obviously there are two lines of thought running in Tolkki's head. The first I imagine came from when he did his musical journey and listening to the entire Stratovarius discography, which apparently he doesn't actually have on CD. "Shit, I did some really interesting albums early in my career" The second is "I just assembled maybe what's the most high-profile supergroup in the history of power metal, people are expecting a massive album, and I need to embrace my role as a power metal musician". The first two Revolution Renaissance albums were a perfect example of both. New Era was very straightforward power metal, and without a consistent band or a good enough keyboard player, it was too lacking to really be effective. Age of Aquarius on the other hand was pure "Creative Tolkki", however, the full band he had at his disposal wasn't very good, and the ideas weren't executed. Look for a balance from "In Paradisium", if we have an album of well delivered unique songs, then Tolkki has absolutely succeeded.

EDIT: Had to correct some mistakes about Santiago/Pilgrim Road confusion

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ozzy- Scream (2010)

“What’s that? Ozzy fired Zakk Wylde? And he hired, no, you’re joking, Gus G? When the hell did Ozzy start recruiting GOOD guitarists, yes, of course I’ll listen”.

The history of Ozzy really needs no introduction, except that my personal thoughts are that his post Sabbath career is a shadow of what he did in Sabbath (But Sabbath’s post-ozzy career fared even worse, a bad move all around). Hearing that Ozzy had hired a power metal guitarist, and a good one at that, raised my interest in his latest album tenfold, and so my thoughts.

It’s important to note that Gus G doesn’t appear to have any hand in the creative process, but as long as Wylde doesn’t either, I’m willing to accept that. The first song, “Let it Die”, is a very heavy, plodding track that I’d almost have to describe as commercialized doom metal. Ozzy’s voice is in surprisingly good form for being in his 60s, the melodies and harmonies are all very good at being heavy enough to satisfy a metalhead while still appealing to a greater audience. Some might call it selling out, but so long as there’s a creative root, I don’t mind. Gus G’s solo is refreshing to hear in the mainstream as well.

The albums title track and lead single, “Let me hear you Scream” is what really sold me on the album though. There’s very upbeat atmosphere to the song, it’s an anthem, and the world always needs more metal anthems. Somewhere along the lines someone figured out that a power metal solo is just what the world needed to hear and it sounds excellent on this track as well.

Soul Sucka is another slower doomy track, with a refreshing hint of fuzz, and a blazing guitar solo. This has serious potential as gateway metal, which is I assume what its primary purpose is these days. One thing that was bound to happen with the solo career vs. Black Sabbath is that this material is much more effective at showcasing Ozzy’s voice, but I fear he may be getting accidentally upstaged by Gus G here and there.

Life won’t wait is the album’s first ballad. It’s kind of like that token epic ballad that’s on every Finnish Power metal album ever. The song features a nice acoustic rhythm, some surprisingly upfront bass, and some great epic flair. 

Diggin Me Down and Crucify are both fairly generic filler tracks that are entertaining to listen to and don’t detract from the album, but don’t necessarily add any new flavor either. The intro of Fearless reminds of something Buckethead would try on one of his heavier albums, and then leads into a much more Ozzy-sounding riff. It’s got some nice syncopation, and an excellent riff. 

Time is another ballad, and this one seems to have less purpose than Life Won’t Wait. It’s got massive pop elements and while the song isn’t awful, it is a bit pointless. The next two tracks, (I want it More and Latimer’s mercy) are, like Diggin’ me down and Crucify, vaguely entertaining, heavy riff based songs with great solos, and little distinction from the rest of the album. The closing track “I love you all” is an interesting minute of synth and acoustics, and apparently, Ozzy loves us all. With an album like this, I can’t say I hate Ozzy, but I’m still left wondering how much better this time could have been spent with the likes of Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward.

Alas, it’s got its highlights, and a very good chunk of solid filler, it’s worth a listen, and the first 3 songs are interesting enough to warrant a few repeat plays, but this is a very safe release from Ozzy.