METAL CHURCH “Damned If You Do” (2018)

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Any new Metal Church is guaranteed to pique interest amongst the old farts around Last Rites HQ, but this particular new Metal Church has been something of a point of polite contention around the break-room water cooler.

On the one side, you’ve got those among us who contend that, while it isn’t as great as Blessing In Disguise, or the self-titled, David Wayne-fronted debut, or even as good as Mike Howe’s return for 2016’s XI, Damned If You Do is nevertheless a fine example of why Metal Church still has the spark, and that’s because they’re still fun, all these years later. These people are correct.

And on the other side, there are those among us who think that Damned is a collection of warmed-over songs, with a few rising above the others, but mostly it’s just a weaker offering from a band that has done much better many times before. These people are incorrect, but only barely.

Mostly, Damned If You Do is XI again, but not quite as strong, so there is something of that feeling of leftover ideas. Maybe it’s just that the newness of Mike Howe’s return has worn off, or maybe it’s that the material isn’t quite as good — something of a second sophomore slump — or maybe it’s both. But I can’t stop myself from thinking of Damned as XI-point-1: It’s virtually identical in sound, and of course, it’s the same style. Metal Church isn’t going to change now — you get what you get; no surprises. Here as on that previous effort, Damned proves that Howe still sounds great, and he and Kurdt Vanderhoof can still write a damned good metal tune, somewhere at the intersection of trad and thrash. Vanderhoof’s production is modern without being too polished. The performances are those of a veteran band, tight and capable, and one that mostly knows enough to play to its strengths — start riff, build tension, hit with a big chorus, release, repeat.

Metal Church has always had a knack for great album openers — “Beyond The Black,” “Fake Healer,” “Reset” — and the title track to Damned If You Do furthers that trend, all hard-driving kick-driven pulse and instant-hook chorus, with a killer breakdown to pilfer some of the relentless stomp of “Fake Healer.” The moody “The Black Things” follows, and the straight-ahead ripper of “By The Numbers,” with some chunky riffing and another big chorus built for sing-shout-snarling along in the front row.

And all is well through those first three, ‘til the midtempo melodic mediocrity of “Revolution Underway.” Though they’ve always had melody to spare, Metal Church is at their best when tempering that melody against muscular trad metal riffing, and backing that metal down a notch into more hard rock territory effectively neuters their formula. (See also: “The Powers That Be” which at least had the sense to be the last track on the otherwise impeccable Blessing In Disguise.) Riff-wise, “Revolution” relies too heavily on a melodic guitar and vocal interplay better suited for the likes of Dokken or some other bigger haired outfit from the same golden age (and I mean no disrespect to Dokken — it’s just a different type of band). It’s a shame that “Revolution” gets underway so early, since it’s the first of the twin stumbles that knock Damned If You Do down a notch, from the Very Good to the Good.

Three respectable-but-not-phenomenal rockers separate “Revolution” from the album’s most unseemly hurdle, the lame swagger of “Monkey Finger,” another foray into hard rock that is handily Damned’s low point, by a pretty wide margin. Mostly riffless, hamstrung with a ridiculous lyric and a clunky melody, and even sporting a dreadfully boring guitar solo, “Monkey Finger” is a forgettable attempt at a midtempo rocker, and one that’s best left forgotten. Follow-up “Out Of Balance” rights the ship, for the most part — it’s not the finest song on hand, though it manages to better balance the melodic and the metallic. “Balance” would’ve hung in among the least interesting on Church’s best records, but here, it’s at least a welcome return to something more fiery after the lunky lumber of “Monkey Finger.” “The War Electric” closes on a chunkier, thrashier note, not a standout but far from an embarrassment.

So the total, of course, for those keeping score is three stellar tracks, five solid ones, and two absolute clunkers amidst an album of ten songs, and numerically, that’s a pretty good margin of success. As much as I clearly enjoy Damned If You Do, I have to admit that, of course, it isn’t as strong as Blessing In Disguise, or as The Human Factor. All the Mike Howe Metal Church records have ranged from Stellar to Pretty Damned Good, and Damned If You Do doesn’t break the trend, though it’s closer to the latter than to the former. Make of that what you will — if you like Metal Church, and if you liked XI, then there’s plenty here to like. And if you don’t, and you didn’t, then we can discuss all of that over by the water cooler at break time.

Metal Church “Damned If You Do” (2018) – Rat Pak Label

 

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SIRENIA “Arcane Astral Aeons” (2018)

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It’s been nearly a decade since music mastermind Morten Eland formed Norwegian symphonic/goth metal outfit SIRENIA. After years of line-up changes, SIRENIA appear to have their most solid line up to date. Their latest release, Arcane Astral Aeons, showcases the talent of this concrete ensemble and a strong portfolio of divine melodies.

With an opening track like In Styx Embrace, it would be impossible not to be enticed. This majestic opening track provides two powerful tools that capture the ears and heart instantly. Those elements are the stately orchestral arrangements and Emmanuelle Zoldan’s impeccable vocal work. The opening song sends chills and shivers all through the body. Like the rest of the album tracks, it’s not even afraid to display some black metal elements. This provides the perfect build up for Into The Night. It provides us with the beautifully melodic Into The Night, this also shows us another aspect of Zoldan‘s versatile vocal ability.

As mentioned before, the album displays a strong collection of stunning melodies. This eclectic selection includes the likes of bombastic Queen Of Lies, the catchy single Love Like Cyanide and the beautiful French melody Nos Heures Sombres. The opening of Desire is fantastic, the melodies on the synthesisers are memorable and invite you in. Well the track is called Desire after all so they achieved that effect perfectly. Throughout the song there is a sci-fi feel from the synthesiser melody and this is a brilliantly memorable song. Be prepared to have the melody in your head for days. The indents of the French language in a few lines band together well with the retro sounding music arrangements in order to provide that unexpected twist.

The first thing to grab your attention in the track The Voyage is the marching beat and gallant guitar work. These are two key aspects that will make any listener feel like they are heading off on an adventure. There is a sense of excitement about this track about heading into the unknown and to a path of endless possibilities. Meanwhile there is a sense of danger within the track as there is uncertainty on what obstacles may disrupt your journey. The sweeping, marching rhythm with the musical arrangements and brilliant vocals help capture the concept of an adventurous journey. Particularly during the bridge of the song with the calm before the storm type vibe; the soft melody from the violins and the siren-esque vocals from the choirs capture this essence perfectly.

If you were to look up the term symphonic metal in the dictionary then the song The Twilight Hour would appear on the page. It’s a regal melody consisting of dramatic orchestral arrangements and operatic vocals. Alongside the guitars, drums and keyboards; they team together to create this monster track. This is one of the best symphonic metal songs that has been produced. It ends on a warming glow in the form of the track Glowing Embers, it provides one more blast of this stunning metal before it comes to an end. It does still leave you wanting more.

To sum up this remarkable tale, Arcane Astral Aeons is an album worth buying. For fans SIRENIA, this is worth the two year wait. For fans of symphonic metal looking for something different then they needn’t look no further.

Rating: 9/10

Sirenia – Arcane Astral Aeons (Napalm Records)

DISTURBED “Evolution” (2018)

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Cashing in on the radical commercial success of their 2015 Simon and Garfunkel cover ‘The Sound of Silence’, Disturbed have decided that an over-saturation of sappy ballads is the next step in their so-called Evolution. Genetically engineered for mass-appeal, soccer mums everywhere will rejoice as they jam the latest Disturbed tracks alongside their angsty teenage kids. Without exaggeration, this latest release consists mostly(!) of forlorn acoustic dirges, stripped back to showcase David Draiman’s clean singing and newly naked chin. I’ll be the first to admit the frontman has vocal chops – he sounds good – but this softening move comes at the expense of everything that makes Disturbed, well, Disturbed. Generally speaking, Evolution consists of two halves alternating in a trouble-helix, each of which can be addressed collectively since every ballad is pretty much the same ballad, and every non-ballad is pretty much the same non-ballad. Albeit, there are superficial differences here and there, but for the most part these tracks stick to predictable structures and similarly bland tones. How fun.

Let’s begin, as the album does, by analysing lead single ‘Are You Ready’. I was ready. This opener is possibly the most clichéd collection of Disturbed tropes put to tape. If a Disturbed cover band went rogue and started mashing up their rehearsal material for the purpose of churning out on-the-spot “originals”, this is what I imagine the result would sound like. It almost comes across as a parody. The first ballad, ‘A Reason to Fight’, doesn’t fare much better either. It’s pleasant enough, but it’s also completely forgettable, boring, safe, and just disappointing in general. This unfortunate pair of songs can be taken as a microcosm of the full collection; this is about the extent of what is on offer. The frustrating desire for something daring or interesting is never satiated. To be blunt, Evolution is essentially a blander version of Immortalized, which was the flavourless porridge version of Asylum, which was the graham cracker version of Indestructible. Even the song titles are uninspired. ‘Hold On To Memories’ is an ironic reminder that you’re unlikely to recollect a solitary riff or lick from this utterly unmemorable album, while musically it adds one more to the pile of disposable ballads.

Surprisingly, there are some decent moments here and there. ‘The Best Ones Lie’ features some of the vitality that made Disturbed appealing in the first place. It doesn’t stand out much from the general catalogue, but it’s a gem by comparison to everything else featured. Hell, there’s even a tasty solo halfway through. Similarly, ‘Already Gone’ is superior to every other ballad here, with some intriguing compositions, glassy guitar lines, and a soulful performance by Draiman. Unfortunately, both of these songs are buried at the back of the album, emerging far too late to save the experience and standing severely outnumbered compared to the remaining dredge. With the triumphant position of the weakest songs, it’s a little too easy to call it “survival of the shittest” in honour of the nonsensical album title, and while I usually dislike being crass and transparently facetious in reviews, this performance hardly merits a formal critique. Better to keep myself amused in the face of this disappointing regression into banality than to dwell on it, seeing as how it has continued since Disturbed’s return, and arguably began a little earlier than that.

Disturbed “Evolution” (2018)
3/10

EVANESCENCE – Synthesis (Live)

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Recorded late last Autumn during the band’s critically-acclaimed ‘Synthesis’ tour, the concert was captured in state-of-the-art 4K by director PR Brown and produced by Craig Ziogas/CTGS Productions.

The songs span Evanescence’s 20-year history to date, reinvented with a full orchestra over a deep electronic landscape. Synthesis is a soulful and sweepingly grandiose event to witness live.

Seated at the piano, Amy Lee opens the set with a single note that builds into the instrumental Overture, seamlessly leading into the crushing wave that is ‘Never Go Back’.

‘Bring Me To Life’, the anthem that lead many people to discover Evanescence, reaches a new level of power and emotion with a pounding, electric heartbeat and soaring orchestral accompaniment, while songs like ‘My Immortal’, ‘Lithium’ and ‘Lost In Paradise’ evoke heartbreaking scenes from a beautiful, timeless film.

Amy Lee’s incredible vocal range and the group’s expressive, multi-layered music naturally lends itself to orchestral accompaniment, shining a light on the singular beauty of the arrangements by composer David Campbell and conductor Susie Seiter creating a truly dynamic, cinematic sound. Lee has called this “a passion project”, which undoubtedly shines through. The sense of occasion is not lost on the band or audience alike in this unique and highly emotive show.

Evanescence recently took their ‘Synthesis’ live tour around the world, delivering highly-acclaimed performances throughout Europe, North America and Australia. This summer, the band teamed with violinist Lindsey Stirling on a tour of North American amphitheatres – one of Live Nation’s top ten tours of the summer.

Tracklisting:

1.Overture
2. Never Go Back
3. Lacrymosa
4. End Of The Dream
5. My Heart Is Broken
6. Lithium
7. Bring Me To Life
8. Unravelling (Interlude)
9. Imaginary
10. Secret Door
11. Hi-Lo
12. Lost In Paradise
13. Your Star
14. My Immortal
15. The In-Between (Piano Solo)
16. Imperfection
17. Speak To Me
18. Good Enough
19. Swimming Home

Evanescence – Synthesis (Live DVD/Blue-Ray)
(Eagle Vision) 2018

GRAVE DIGGER “The Living Dead” (2018)

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There are few bands in the metal scene who have been active as long as Grave Digger. The German heavy metal icons, led by Chris Boltendahl, have been playing under various monikers for close to four decades, producing 19 albums. Far from ready to settle down for eternal rest, the band are following up last year’s Healed By Metal with The Living Dead.

Grave Digger by name, and I guess by nature as well, as the music is keeping in line with the sort of connotations the name brings up. The guitar tone is a little abrasive, dirtying up the riffs with the mud and grime of disturbed earth. The leads, which are quite pretty at times, are rough around the edges as well, so as not to be too at odds with the riffs. Although this audio abrasion is by design, it became a little tiring as the album wears on, as it is quite full on, even in the calmer moments. Boltendahl’s voice is rougher still, as if his vocal cords were composed of the gravel, powering through admirably with grit and passion close to 40 years later. His intensity has likely been weathered by age, but he’s still giving his all, and that conviction can make a world of difference when you’re not quite able to fire on all cylinders. The rhythm section hurtles along with a cool, reserved demeanour, offering a robust footing complemented by some nice little fills and patterns when the opportunity arises.

Grave Digger’s best days have long past, but their creative wheels are still moving well enough. A lot of effort and attention has been put into the song structures, how they’re organised and how they develop and progress. I may not agree with some of the creative choices made, but everything feels natural. A handful of songs (“When Death Passes By” and “What War Left Behind”) open at a blistering pace and you just will them to rip through its duration at this lightning speed, only to have the brakes put on far too soon. Both are fairly good songs, but you have to wonder how they might turned out if they’d have really gone for the throat, as they eventually backtrack into the sort of pace that many of the other songs on the album do. What I do take away from these two tracks though is how well implemented these tempo changes are, as whilst I would rather they maintained the high speed they start with, the drop in speed itself is never jarring and feels completely organic.

Furthermore, recognising the strengths of some of these songs in the face of obvious flaws does make me appreciate the album more. “Fear of the Living Dead” is quite middle of the road as far as openers go, particularly for a heavy metal album, as it really doesn’t grab you at all. Nevertheless, a few spins unearths a half catchy earworm that is structurally sound and has a good flow to it. The slightly generic riffs that carry “Hymn of the Damned”, “Insane Pain” and “The Power of Metal” aren’t bland enough to undermine the more inspired ideas they contain (cornball lyrics of the latter aside), with the scything riff and stuttering beat of the former a moment of true quality. The jovial, folky jive of “Zombie Dance” is totally at odds with the rest of the album, which, despite being difficult to take seriously, is enjoyable all the same.

Having been a touch negative thus far, I have reserved a paragraph to state that when The Living Dead is good, it is really good. “Blade of the Immortal” has a riff that is so ridiculously heavy and groovy, that even thinking about head banging to it will give you whiplash. That this riff is flawlessly melded to an upbeat, power metal style chorus makes it all the more potent. “Shadow of the Warrior” opens with a softly picked motif and layered vocals for a medieval feel, before leaping into a powerful central riff. The medieval aura is due to an undercurrent of keyboards that runs through much of the record and, despite never really breaking through the wall of guitars, they are still audible enough be atmospheric. Frustratingly, The Living Dead is also one of those albums that consigns one of its better songs to bonus track status. “Glory or Grave” is definitely more glory than grave, with simple riff patterns that are in constant motion and some deft dual guitar work. It’s a great song, performed with guts and gusto, and comfortably usurps many of the regular album tracks here.

The Living Dead falls in line with many of Grave Digger’s most recent albums. It’s a far cry from their glory years, but they’re still capable of putting out some good, if slightly uneven records. If you are looking to pick up this album, just make sure the bonus track is included, as otherwise the final stretch may be a slog.

7/10

GRAVE DIGGER “The Living Dead” (2018)
Napalm Records

STORMZONE “Lucifer’s Factory” (2018)

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No over-analysis needed here, Stormzone are a simple beast and Lucifer’s Factory is just horn-throwing and fist-pumping classic heavy metal. Classic heavy metal at its best. Don’t let the simplicity of what Stormzone do throw you…this is an excellent album. Filled with huge riffs, screaming guitar solos, wailing vocals and enough hooks to detach your neck from head through the pure ferocity of the head-banging that is going on.

Dust off the patch jackets, squeeze into the leather pants and find an old headband as Stormzone deliver heavy metal gold with tracks like Dark Hedges, Last Night in Hell, We Are Strong and In For the Kill.

It’s also pretty cool to see the band continue to celebrate their Celtic roots with tracks such as Cushy Glen and Albhartach. While not obvious it’s a nice touch that comes across through the subject matter.

If you’re looking for imagination in your metal then Lucifer’s Factory isn’t going to do much for you. However, if you’re looking for some good old-fashioned heavy metal to bang your head too then it is the perfect listen.

2018 is beginning to look like the year for the return of the classic metal sound & bands like Stormzone are leading the charge.

1. Dark Hedges
2. Lucifer’s Factory
3. Cushy Glen
4. Last Night In Hell
5. Albhartach
6. We Are Strong
7. Broken Window
8. The Heaven You Despise
9. Hallows’ Eve
10. Your Hell Falls Down
11. In For The Kill
12. The Last Goodbye
13. Time To Go

STORMZONE “Lucifer’s Factory” (2018)
Metal Nation Records

AYREON – Ayreon Universe (Live DVD 2018)

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If you are familiar with Ayreon, you will probably know that these collaborative works of music are the brainchild of the somewhat reclusive Arjen Anthony Lucassen, and are rarely – if ever – performed live. September 2015 saw the presentation of The Theater Equation, four shows in which the album The Human Equation (Inside Out) was performed in its entirety in front of a live audience. While this was a successful endeavour, we had been assured for years that there would never be a live ‘best of’ performance of Ayreon.

You can imagine the pleasant surprise when the Ayreon Universe shows were announced. Three shows were to be held in 013, Tilburg, The Netherlands, in September 2017. It came as no surprise whatsoever that the shows sold out within hours, and while many fans traveled from far across the world to be present for this momentous occasion, a venue with a capacity of 3000 would never be able to house all those who would have liked to be present. Luckily for those who couldn’t enjoy the show in person – as well as those of us who could but wish to relive it – the shows were recorded by some thirty cameras to ensure that, this time, everyone can have the best seats in the house without leaving the comfort of their sofa.

So how does the musical extravaganza translate to the “big screen”? Very well, it seems. The massive screen behind the stage which features names of musicians, artwork, and occasionally lyrics is just as impressive as it was in real life, and the Ayreon Universe DVD (Music Theories Recordings) even adds the song titles for those who don’t yet know the entire oeuvre by heart. The many cameras have captured the expressions of the artists, which adds a lot of performance value, especially to the instrumentalists and Micheal Mills’ TH-1 as he delivers variations on the narration from The Final Experiment (Transmission / Inside Out / SPV) and Into The Electric Castle (Transmission / Inside Out).

As for the show itself, it really is a rock show of epic proportions! Songs are taken from the entire Ayreon oeuvre, as well as from Star One, which has been performed in the past. Some songs are performed by the original artists as if they were directly lifted from the album, such as Edward Reekers and Robert Soeterboek’s performance of ‘Computer Eyes’. Others are reinvigorated by new voices, whether kept similar to the original as with Jaycee Cuijpers’ rendition of ‘Dawn of a Million Souls’” or altered in style like Michael Mills’ stunning take on ‘Day 16: Loser’.

Arjen Lucassen himself rocks up at ‘The Castle Hall’ to great enthusiasm from the crowd, giving an impassioned speech about how this production came to be, how proud he is to have his project up on stage, and just how terrified he is on that stage. Several more spectacular songs build up to the big climactic ending with all musicians sharing the stage.

For those who haven’t quite had their fill after the two and half hours of music, the DVD also contains an almost ninety minutes of behind the scenes documentary, featuring all the ins and outs of the shows from conception to fan satisfaction. Arjen and Joost explore topics such as song and artist choices, visuals, and why exactly they refer to each other as “lul”. The artists explain what the process was like for them, from being asked to participate to actually performing in front of 3000 people.

If even that’s not enough, there is a short special with snippets of footage from the try-out show held at 013 on September 1st. There were only a few vocalists present, including some who aren’t in the main shows, and it is interesting to see how other people interpret the songs.

9.5/10
AYREON – Ayreon Universe (Live DVD)