Friday, 19 October 2012

Die Toten Hosen- Ballast Der Republik- 2012

Ballast Der Republik is the new offering from Germanic rockers Die Toten Hosen. Released back in May, this album is as eclectic as it is a novelty. Offering a mix of slower ballads and shout-along-in-a-rough-phonetic-way-despite-not-speaking-German Anthems
It is a strange phenomenon in the Musical world that bands from English speaking countries like England and America can find mass international fame worldwide, yet artists from other countries fail to make an impact on anything other than niche markets. This needs to change as there are some truly decent foreign acts out there.
These Punk-Rockers have really managed to get the art of writing good riffs, catchy lyrics and memorable hooks down. Whilst the album has a few weaker tracks, and tracks which seem rather indistinct (which is the problem with the majority of more modern rock bands I find), songs like the new (Oct 2012) single Altes Fieber really have power and a kind of epic quality that you can imagine a large crowd singing along with. Whereas on the slightly folksy track Ballast Der Republik, there is a definite Viking and pirate-rock influence. Die Toten Hosen don’t skimp out on the emotional level of their tracks either, without knowing anything of the meanings of the lyrics, there are the odd riff and melody to tug at the heartstrings in a precise, stereotypically Germanic way.

The major criticism of this album is that it seems a bit too polished for my taste. Everything feels precise and digital, which detracts from the rock n roll ethos this band seems to be struggling to keep hold of.
3 chord power rock style of the band does have the potential to get repetitive, especially as there are 16 songs on the album, barely any of which are much over 3 minutes long. However the different ways in which the formula is treated means that there is enough variety to keep the listener interested.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Ash- The Best of Ash- 2011

Back in the early 1990s, with Brit pop bands like Oasis and Blur dominating the guitar-based aspect of commercial music and bubblegum pop covering the slightly more light hearted end, there was a group that seemed to be around, but never huge, their name is remembered, but (after a bit of half-hearted research) very little of their music. That band, is Ash. (Not even the media player I used to listen to the album on my laptop would recognise them)
This “Best of” collection is, to be fair to the group, not the worst collection of songs in the world. The punk rock roots of the band are definitely audible, and the few tracks that I recognised caused a bit of nostalgic excitement. The music has lots in common with some of the “Indie” music of recent years, and on occasion, the guitar parts sound a bit reminiscent of a past Irish Rock band, Thin Lizzy! It’s a bit shocking therefore that the band has had so little recognition, despite the fact that out of their six studio albums, two have been certified gold, and two even managed to go platinum. Yet there are no real stand out songs from the band’s entire back catalogue.  Despite this, the songs they’ve chosen are, surprisingly, not entirely awful. However, I wouldn’t say all nineteen of them are strong enough to be included on a “Best of” album. If they wanted this to be a true retrospective of a career of a band who had only limited success, then they should have been more selective with the song choices, possibly limiting the list to more of a standard album length of 10-12 tracks only.

The question that this “best of” collection of singles begs to ask is, how can an act who rarely broke the UK top ten, and has been resigned to the “where are they now” pile of bands, have a collection of Best of singles? This band seems to be in the list kept for the “hipsters” who only like obscure groups that no-one’s ever heard of. The name is familiar to most of us, but the songs are less so, or at least, there are very few of us that could name 19 of them. A Best of Collection implies that the group has had enough success to warrant an album dedicated entirely to it, and, for Ash, that mass success has never really come. To me, they will always be one of those acts that no-one ever really knew who they were, but during the mid 90s always had a track on one of those chart compilation albums that your grandparents got you for Christmas because they didn’t really know what to get you. The only real recent success that the band has had was that the intro to their song ”Burn Baby Burn”  has been used as the theme music to the BBC Stand up show “Michael Macintyre’s Comedy Road Show”
Overall, despite the fact that there are a great many songs that seem to be on the album merely as time-fillers to bring the track list closer to the twenty songs that seems about normal on “Best of” compilations, nineteen songs chosen from six albums is a bit  much. Especially as there were very few real hits amongst them. But the majority of the songs aren’t all bad. So if you are partial to a bit of modern “Indie” music then it’s not a bad collection, although there are better albums around. Therefore, either if you genuinely are a fan, then it’s probably worth it as an album. But if not, then just stick to the couple of tracks on the 90s compilations.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Nirvana- Nevermind- 2011 Reissue

20 years ago, Seattle band Nirvana released a little album that has gone on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide and “changed the world of music forever”. It is, of course Nevermind. The first single of which seems to be on every playlist ever made, everywhere. Even if you don’t like rock music, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is without a doubt, at least one of the most recognisable songs in history.  Nirvana’s sound is one that has been constantly imitated, yet never surpassed, which was epitomised on Nevermind. Although there are some slightly… abrasive moments, such as the ending of ‘Something In The Way’ which takes the ideas of aggression shown in the band’s music to a clashing, distorted climax.  Even though it’s the loud anthems that Nirvana and Nevermind in particular are known for, the album is very rounded, with Ballads like ‘Polly’ and ‘Come As You Are’ being two notable examples.

For a remaster they haven’t really made the album hugely louder (as is usually the case when bands start re-mixing the original tapes) the sound quality of this new version brings the band’s sound right up to date. There are so many different packages for this new issue: With bonus discs of unreleased jam sessions, alternate takes of some of the tracks that finally made the cut, discs of singles, DVD packages, there are so many versions to choose from. There’s almost a sort of “option paralysis” when it comes to looking through the fresh release packages. However, this really is a must-own album. And even if you already have it, there are so many new things added on to the end, and the superior sound quality makes it a worthwhile purchase (especially if, like me your other copy is on cassette!!!)

Van Halen- A Different Kind of Truth- 2012

A recent resurgence in the popularity of Classic Rock music has had many effects. Mainly that many older bands are facing increased pressure to reform, tour and record, and that I can now go into a record store and look for NEW albums by my personal favourite artists (yes, I have the same taste in music as your dad). The first offering from the old-guard of Rockers for 2012 comes from Californian metal masters Van Halen. This is their first album in over ten years, and their first with original singer, David Lee Roth since the 1980s. This is, therefore, a fairly momentous occasion for all fans of the band’s music. However, the album has been confirmed to be made up of mostly reworkings of old demos that never made it onto studio albums. This has made many people angry that the band has lost creativity and originality. What these people seem to forget is that people widely accept that old Van Halen was best Van Halen (VH I was a huge hit for the band back in 1978 was a hit, III in 1998 erm… was not) These songs, therefore, have the hallmarks of the band’s classic sound, infused with the relative youth of Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, on bass.
Musically, the band are as strong as ever. The album contains 13 tracks of unashamed, unabashed, joyous Rock n Roll music. The years haven’t diminished the phenomenal guitar skills of Eddie that helped make the band so successful from the start. The solos are still lightning fast, with riffs that, if anything, prove that the band is as heavy as ever. There are few real problems with the music on the album, the biggest criticisms I have are: that occasionally the vocals seem to get a bit messy and become rather unclear. David Lee Roth, the enigmatic front man, although still a great singer, has, over the years, aged and is no longer what he once was. The drums pound away and keep a huge sounding beat going throughout the album
Some of the lyrical material is not exactly genius, with some songs sounding remarkably similar to earlier tracks (Stay Frosty bares a remarkable resemblance to Ice Cream Man) One of the tracks on the album, You and Your Blues seems to do nothing more than quote the titles of old Blues and rock  numbers. The first single from the album, Tattoo although catchy, lacks some of the spark and energy of their earlier songs. With a fairly cheesy refrain which, nonetheless is rather catchy. As a song, it’s not exactly highbrow or musically complicated, but it includes a typical Eddie guitar solo, proving that despite the years he’s still got his famous blazing chops.

In the end, Van Halen haven’t exactly stretched themselves or done anything different with this album. However, as such a well established band, that will either be a positive or a negative depending on your point of view. Nostalgia is probably the best way to listen to this album. Put aside any desires for a new sound, just think yourself into the minds of a 1980s Rock kid, and blast it out loud and proud. For me, it’s what this band’s meant to be: unashamed, unabashed, pure good time Rock & Roll!

Dream Theater- A Dramatic Turn of Events- 2011

There are many things that may alter the dynamics, sound and general attitude of a band. One of the most drastic of these would be the loss of a founder member and key writer of the band’s music. When Drummer Mike Portnoy decided to leave Dream Theater in 2010, the future of the entire band was up in the air; however, with new drummer Mike Mangini stepping into the enormous shoes left behind, this album is still very much a Dream Theater album in the style that fans are used to.
The album still contains all of the progressive touches that are associated with these Prog titans: Odd time signatures, complicated modal keys, extended solos and even some sound effects from Himalayan Shaman Throat Singers(that could be misheard as burps)  on the song “Bridges in the Sky.” This album has been compared by others to some of the best albums in the band’s 26-odd year existence. I agree that the album does sound “fresh and frankly stunning” even with the obvious comparisons that would come with changing line-ups, Mangini shows that he definitely has the ability, expertise and know-how to achieve great things and help write the next chapter in Dream Theater’s already epic tale. After such a great shake up in the ranks, however, it is only natural that there is a theme of loss and change that runs through the album. Especially as Portnoy was such a prolific contributor to the sound of the band.
Everything about the album is large, with big record label money behind them, being a major recent signing for Roadrunner Records (2006), epic sounding keyboard sounds which seem to soar, long songs, with only 1 of the 9 tracks on the album being less than 5 minutes long. However there are no multi-section epics that are commonly associated with the band are conspicuous by their absence.  Having said that, there is nothing here that resembles a standard song format. Even “Far From Heaven” (The album’s shortest track) still sounds very epic, even with mostly a piano and strings backing.

John Petrucci’s guitar riffs are, as ever, complex and serve to further to consolidate his reputation as one of the best guitarists ever. His playing style continues to astound and his skills only seem to improve with time. His solos remain exercises in the impossible, flying round the fretboard at dizzying speed.

The Keyboard wizardry of Jordan Rudness is as impressive as always, able to set the moods of slower sections of songs or increase the impact of large, epic sounding compositions. His backing on “Far From Heaven” is truly beautiful, less metal keyboards, more Lounge piano.  His introductions seem to dominate most of the songs on the album, setting a calmer mood before the rest of the band enters with big, metal riff-based sections.
Having been voted the best bass player of all time in 2010 by readers of MusicRadar, Myung’s lines have an understated power. Never treading on the toes of anyone else, but definitely keeping a firm foundation over which the rest of the band seem free to explore their own virtuosity.

Vocally, James LaBrie is as strong as ever, the operatic tenor of his voice allowing him to hit high notes that many singers would not dare to attempt. Unfortunately, he is still the most underrated musician in the group, never really having been voted as a great vocalist or front man. Which is a shame as his voice is one of the best out there, with a range that easily encompasses both softer and heavier styles.

Overall, this is a very good album, despite the comparisons brought about by line-up changes and complaints that people have that it’s not the same… It’s still epic Progressive Metal at it’s very best.

Diamond Plate- Generation Why?- 2-11

Anger, confusion, questioning of the government… What do these themes and emotions all have in common? They’ve been at the centre of many a lyricists mind since the dawn of time. From the early Elvis records, to the most bizarre and extreme corners of metal and out into the great beyond, the formula has been shaken and stirred over the decades. However, recently it has been allowed to settle back into an old routine. In the mid 80’s, American Metal had stagnated into the Cheesy Hair Metal scene of the LA area. Big hair and bigger clich├ęs was what it was all about. In 1983, the beginnings of the Thrash Metal revolution attempted to shake things up and create something more exciting and fresh, which led to the creation of some of metal’s biggest selling acts. However, some 20 years later, the young, hyperactive upstart that was thrash has, itself, fallen into a bit of a rut.

This is the debut offering from Chicago Thrash Metal band Diamond Plate. As a Thrash album, it holds no surprises; fast, driving guitar riffs, heavy drums and vocals that growl and scream with the best of them. Unfortunately, there is very little of anything new, original or different about this album to any other Thrash Metal band, old or new. The songs all follow a similar format (with the exception of an interesting instrumental introduction number made from clips of old news programs). For a while there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, as they effectively establish a sound and a style in the vein of the old thrashers. However, by the time the hour-long album finishes, the formula of riff-verse-chorus-verse-solo-repeat wears a bit thin, with much of the album being interchangeable and indistinctive from the rest.
With the sheer number of Thrash Metal bands out there at the moment, there needs to be some sort of unique selling point to make them stand out from the masses (which, unfortunately, this band seems to lack). Having said that, however, as a metal album along to which one may wish to exorcise any demons with a fist in the air and the volume turned up to 11, you can do far worse. What Diamond Plate lack in subtlety and finesse, they more than make up for in raw aggression, brutality, and an obvious enthusiasm- never releasing the listener from the metaphorical steel vice of their music until the album’s well and truly over. Lyrically, ‘Generation Why?’ really does seem to attempt to critique such US policies as the war on terror in the Middle East. The unmistakeable thrash Metal guitar model rarely deviates, and there are plenty of millions-of-notes-a-second guitar solos to keep fans of virtuosic guitar pyrotechnics happy.
The album’s high points include “More Than Words”, a virtuosic, heavy groove instrumental, which gives all the musicians a chance to showcase their obvious talents. The piece even includes a Spanish flamenco style section. Solos are abound and long enough to have proper structures and build up as mini songs in their own right. The track also feels more laid back, without really slowing down the tempo. The piece has more of a Pantera, style groove than a hyperactive speed-metal feel.
Overall, this album is nothing particularly special, however it shows a band with a lot of potential for development. But as it stands, Diamond Plate are still lost amongst the masses.

Evile- Five Serpent's Teeth- 2011

In a world where metal is seemingly defined by doom and black metal, it is a rare thing to see an album that seems so influenced by some of Metal’s golden years (i.e. the early-mid 80’s), and “Five Serpent’s Teeth” the latest offering from Yorkshire Metallers Evile is exactly that, a back to basics piece of heavy metal gold. After their first album, which was produced by Flemming Rasmussen, who was involved in the making of arguably one of the best Thrash (if not the best Metal album of all time) Metallica’s Master of Puppets, the band has lost none of their classic, mid-80s Thrash sound. The influences from this collaboration are definitely still present and very obvious to all who know their old-school Metallica. With catchy, head banging riffs that make you want to raise your fist in the air, fast guitar solos and an all-out metal attitude, this is an all round great album with none of the stereotyped metal “doom and gloom”.  
The opening title track ‘Five Serpent’s Teeth” sets the scene for a consistently heavy album, it’s intense riffage is classic thrash at its best: Anthemic, and grabs you in a vicelike grip that refuses to let you go until the album’s well and truly over. ‘In Dreams of Terror’ continues in a very similar vein, which is one of my major criticisms of this album. From time to time it is hard to distinguish one track from another, as there are times when any let-up or subtlety in the song writing and playing are few and far between. ‘Cult’ is a great track, with a groove that occasionally seems to be missing from the other tracks.  ‘Eternal Empire’ and ‘Xaraya’ both follow the same formula of no holds barred, in-your-face metal. The Track ‘Origin of Oblivion’, if anything show a slightly heavier side of Evile, suggesting that they have their ears tilted ever so slightly towards more modern metal and aren’t just stuck in the 80s. ‘Centurion’ begins with an evil intro that leads into a slower song, but no less powerful. ‘In Memoriam’ shows a softer side of the band, as a musical tribute to bassist Mike Alexander.  It’s slow, melancholic melodies show a beauty of playing that the previous 7 tracks barely hint at. In my opinion, the best track on the album. The calmer atmosphere doesn’t last long however, as ‘descent into Madness’ returns straight back to the thrash mould. The closing number, ‘Long Live New Flesh’ is a killer anthem which ends the album as a call to arms for all young metal heads out there.
 Vocally, there are no soaring melodies or songs about demons and monsters, the singing is all deep and gravelly, without sounding growly or too guttural. Lyrically, there are great divides, with the song ‘In Memoriam’ dedicated to their late bass player, ‘Cult’ dealing with cultism, and ‘Origin of Oblivion’ dealing with globalisation and capitalism. The dual guitar assault here sounds huge and tight, with fast riffs and technical, lighting-fast fret board wizardry abound, so the air-guitarists out there (myself included) should be satisfied. The influences of these two guitar playing brothers (rhythm guitarist/vocalist Matt Drake and lead guitarist Ol Drake) are rarely hidden from the surface, with the odd moment of guitar harmony that could be taken straight out of any classic Judas Priest album. There are reasons why the metal community are going wild about this band, the whole album sounds like something that could have come out of the same San Francisco breeding ground that Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer emerged from.  Appropriate then that this band has, amongst many other achievements, toured with Thrash Metal titans Megadeth, won a Kawasaki Golden God Award for being “Metal as F**k.” They have played at many of the huge metal festivals in the last couple of years, including Download, Sonisphere and Wacken.   
Overall, this album, although at times a bit samey, shows the metal community that all is not lost.  Riff based classic thrash metal still exists.
The record label that has produced this have advertised this band with one simple tag-line: “Thrash is back” and is it? Hell yeah!

Originally published on my previous blog and in Lancaster University SCAN newspaper.