Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Album Review: Arch/Matheos - Sympathetic Resonance

Artist: Arch/Matheos
Album: Sympathetic Resonance
Year: 2011

I make no apologies for my long time love of Fates Warning.  I think Jim Matheos is one of the best song writers in the progressive rock/metal arena, a fabulous guitar player, and a groundbreaking artist.  Likewise, John Arch is one of my favorite vocalists, both for his clear, powerful voice and his truly unique vocal melodies.  Their collaboration produced some of the truly influential albums back in the 80s.  I believe that the entire genre of progressive metal owes Fates Warning a huge debt.

However, real life gets in the way, music may not always pay the bills, and John Arch split with band after their classic record Awaken the Guardian.  Fates continued, evolved and Jim Matheos' writing continued to mature.  John and Jim collaborated back in 2003 for the EP A Twist of Fate, which was excellently received and really had fans begging for more, particularly for John's unique vocal work.  More years passed, though, with nothing new.  Fates released their last studio recording in 2004, though Jim kept himself busy with OSI amongst other things.  But nothing new from the pair.

Why mention all this history?  What bearing could it possibly have on the album in question here?  Expectations.  It is all about expectations.  When I heard that Jim had some songs for a new Fates Warning record, my excitement started to build.  When I then heard that Ray Alder (vox for Fates) was too busy and that Jim had contacted John and they decided to move ahead with their own record, my excitement hit 11 and stayed there until the album dropped.  I had incredibly high expectation.  Foolishly high.  High to the point that it would have taken an almost superhuman feat to meet them, let alone exceed them.

It would appear that this was a superhuman collaboration then.  Expectations: exceeded.

Sympathetic resonance is a harmonic phenomenon in which a passive vibratory body responds to external vibrations to which it has harmonic likeness.  Incredibly appropriate.  Bringing these musicians together again seems to have lead to a synergistic response, in which each responded to the other, augmenting their individual skills and contributions. I suppose what I am trying to say is this: this is some incredibly great music.

The group is rounded out with Frank Aresti on guitars as well (former guitarist for Fates Warning), Joey Vera on bass (current Fates bassist) and Bobby Jarzombek (current drummer for Fates, amongst other gigs). Each person contributes magnificently, and despite the band bearing the names of John and Jim, this really does feel like a group effort.  And it is that collaboration that makes this come together so well.

The guitars are excellent.  Crisp, clear, yet with a rich, heavy bite to them.  This is the heaviest Jim Matheos' guitars have sounded since No Exit.  No question about the "metal" side to this record.  Frank Aresti's solos further add to that, with some soaring, blazing solos peppered throughout the album.  The rhythm section adds to this strength.  Joey Vera is as solid and reliable as ever, with a rich, low driving bass that fills out the album.  I was saddened when Mark Zonder left Fates after X, as he is an incredible drummer.  All doubts have been erased after hearing Bobby Jarzombek on Sympathetic Resonance.  His playing is masterful.  He has all the technical chops necessary to play the intricate, progressive music that Jim writes.  On top of that, he brings a power, precision and inventive style that adds to the energy and urgency of these songs.  I have a new person to add to my list of favorite drummers (in good company with the likes of Neil Peart and Gavin Harrison).

But what about the vocals?  After so many years, was there any possible way John could still hit those high notes?  And would he still write the most unique and unconventional vocal melodies in rock/metal?  The answer to all of those questions is a resounding "Yes".  He sounds as good as ever, in fact possibly better than ever.  His voice is crystal clear, and carries with it power and emotion that are unequaled.  The melodies are fascinating, going places that only John Arch would take them.  Lyrically, he continues to eschew the banality of contemporary rock music and draw from the wells of poetry, mysticism and life experience.  A word of warning though, the vocals are not what people are generally used to.  It took some time for me to really appreciate John's vocals.  Now, with this release, I would say he is at the top of my list of vocalists.  There just is no one like him, and he shines on this album.  And if you have something bad to say about John Arch's vocals, well, it might be best if we just didn't talk.

Sympathetic Resonance is a fantastic record.  It is powerful, vivid, provocative and reaffirms my love of this style of music.  Every track is stellar, with "Neurotically Wired" and "Under Stained Glass Sky" epitomizing everything that makes progressive metal appealing and challenging.  This is not an easy album.  It is challenging.  However, it never becomes actively antagonistic, a trap that progressive music can fall in to.  It is a richly rewarding record, with accessibility to hook you, and depth to keep you coming back.  After dozens of listens (yes, plural), I still find myself drawn inexorably back to this album.  I haven't grown tired of it in the least, and other releases have suffered by being compared to this or coming out after it.

Final verdict: Adore it
If you couldn't guess that from the text of the review, one of us is in trouble.  Sympathetic Resonance sets a new high water mark for what modern progressive metal can be, and what I feel it should all aspire to be.  Powerful, technical, emotional, evocative are just a few of the words that come to mind to describe this stellar release.  I'll add one more term: Album of the Year.  I'm calling it now.  If something comes out in the next two months that tops this, my gast will be officially flabbered.    

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Album Review: Wolverine - Communication Lost

Wolverine - Communication Lost
Year: 2011
Click here for the artist's site

A few years back I stumbled across a Swedish band called Wolverine.  A track titled "His Cold Touch" was my first introduction.  I was impressed and quickly sought out their other albums.

What I discovered was a really unique band that seemed to defy description.  They called to mind a number of bands I really loved (Fates Warning, Riverside, Opeth, Pain of Salvation, Katatonia) yet still managed to have their own sound.

With their most recent release, that trademark sound has been honed to a razor sharp edge, polished to perfection.  Let's just cut to the chase right here: Communication Lost is a fantastic album.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Liveblogging the Devin Townsend Project.

I've loved Devin Townsend for years. I remember the first time I heard Accelerated Evolution, the frenetic sense of motion, the layers upon layers of sound - the absolute beauty of it all. I remember when I heard Alien for the first time, and the disorientation and comforting discomfort that it brought. (Yeah, it's that kind of album.) I remember laughing at the conceit of a concept album about a puppet that demands all the world's coffee.

I also remember it's been two years since I've heard a peep from the man. That, for him, is an inordinately long time. For years, he'd put out at least one album of amazing music a year, and often more. In 2009, we were treated to the first two albums of the four Devin Townsend Project discs, and I was left waiting for more.

And waiting.

And waiting.

Finally, the wait is over. The two concluding parts of the Devin Townsend Project are being released, and I'm thrilled to hear what the madman of metal has for us this time around. I'm going to write quick reactions to my first listen-through of the project as a whole, from the beginning two discs to the two new ones. Think of it like liveblogging an event - one that's way better than the Oscars or Grammys could ever hope to be.

Ki   Ki

This album is heavier than I remember it being. When I was describing the DTP to my wife, I told her the first part was very low-key and soft. It is in parts, but "Coast wastes no time getting a bit heavy. And "Gato"? Listen to that lovely crunch.

There is a certain feel of raw sound that Ki has that no other Devin album has had. It's not that it sounds like a demo, but it has that type of urgency and simplicity. This is pared down to a degree Devin rarely is - often just one guitar track, one vocal, a bass and a drum. It's lucid.

I love the female vocals on this CD. They're so different from Anneke (who we'll hear so much from on Addicted) that they make a great contrast.

Tense. That's the best way to describe Ki. It's a record that seethes.

"Heaven Send" is Devin's songwriting at its most powerful. And its most terrifying. And "Trainfire" is a weird, Elvis-y feeling thing that doesn't feel like it really belongs here. And then, it does, as the Elvis fades and the sense of calm comes back.

The piano is a nice touch on "Lady Helen". It's really a great song. And so too is "Ki", easily the centerpoint of the album. It's a wonderful little song, with a lilting melody, stoic guitar work, and just the right groove - which picks up pace and verve near the end, feeling frenetic and terse. It's got all the technicality of a Strapping Young Lad song without any of the violence. Beautiful.

And we close out the album with "Demon League", quiet and simple. It ends on a promise of more - on a promise of loudness to come...

Addicted [+digital booklet]   Addicted

And boy, does it get loud. "Addicted!" starts with a crunch, and it's a whole new ballgame. Heavy, layered, multiple vocals punch in, and the whole things starts feeling blessedly chaotic. Between Devin's clean and harsh vocals and the addition of Anneke, it's busy and full. Just like any Devin Townsend record should be.

I love the spacey synth sounds that permeate Addicted. It's just crazy sauce.

On the matter of production: in terms of the solidity of the whole thing, it's the closest (in Devin's back catalog) to Physicist, which has some blistering metal on it, but remains sounding controlled and centered. So too here - this is very heavy metal, but it's produced like a pop record. This is not a slight against it, by any means - it just has a beautiful identity crisis, like it's a pop metal album trying to decide what it's going to be.

Here we are: "Bend it Like Bender!", where Anneke takes the reins of the vocals and dominates the song (and much of the rest of the album). She has such an inimitable, memorable voice, Devin was beyond wise in enlisting her help. And when the two sing together? Gold.

And let's be honest. On Ziltoid, "Hyperdrive" was a great tune. A soaring anthem. Reproduced here, with Anneke singing the vocals, it's (arguably) even better. It punches just right, and her dulcet voice peaks beautifully.

"In-Ah!" has a gorgeous melody. It's the calmest point on this record, probably - and it's just stunning. Even pop records need their ballads, and this metalpop album has a doozy of one here.

And we approach "Awake!", the sprawling album-closer that features more melodic ideas than all six of Nickelback's albums combined. It's big and splashy, and then fades out into quiet introspection. It really sums up what the new, cleaned-up Devin Townsend is all about better than anything I write can. And so we're on to the brand-new stuff...

Deconstruction   Deconstruction

It starts . . . not where I expected it to start. Lots of synth, weird drumming, and almost no guitar at all. I'm curious to see where Dev is going to take this sound - this is supposed to be his weirdest, most blistering album yet. And it's starting like . . . a Depeche Mode album or something. (Don't get me wrong - it sounds great.) But what is this? Who are you, Devin Townsend? And from whence do you come?

And there it is. Utter confusion and chaos. No time wasted. Less than four minutes in, and now I know this is a Devin Townsend album. Lyrically, this is dark stuff - lots of violence and drug use. This is Dev battling his inner demons. And then it fades out. This is going to be a roller-coaster of contradictions, methinks.

Oh! Oh my! Is that Mikael Ackerfeldt's harsh vocals I hear in there?!? IT IS OH DEVIN WHAT HAVE YOU DONE. "Stand" blisters, peels, and cracks, just to blister all over again. And when it calms down, it's just a ruse, waiting to assault you as soon as you let your guard down.

"Juular" sounds like a demented carnival ride. Another polka for the centuries, just like "Vampolka" and "Vampira" on Synchestra. It's madness.

The madness continues. There's so much going on in this album, a one-time listen through will never suffice to describe it. It has definite touches of everything Devin has done before this, but it's a creature all on its own. It's an ugly thing, but I think I love it.

"The Mighty Masturbator" is one of the strangest songs Dev has ever given us. I don't even know where to begin to dissect it. It's so massive and layered. I expect nothing less than surprises from Devin, every album - this one doesn't disappoint. And once again, I feel like I'm trapped in a terrifying carnival of sound.

"Cheeseburger . . . cheeseburger . . . cheeseburger." "Shut up, Rick!"

And "Poltergeist" wraps it up - loud, violent, and abrasive. Deconstruction is every bit of those, all eighty minutes of it.

Ghost   Ghost

Did this album really just start with flute?

Yes. Yes it did. And it's a perfect way to begin it. This is the most low-key (while still interesting - yes, I'm looking at you, The Hummer) that Devin has ever done. This is music I would put in the car if I knew I was driving my mom somewhere. It's just that pretty.

"Feather" sprawls, but stays just so airy. It's like new age music that doesn't suck or something.

The title track, "Ghost", has a great sway to it, and bubbles with effervescence. The vocal layers add so much, as each is so light and (dare I say it) friendly. This is Devin's friendly album. What? Devin Townsend made a friendly album? Yeah, I'm thinking it too - while I'm tapping my toe to it.

The use of lots of synthesizers really fills out the sound of the whole album - it's really solid.

And so I reach the last track, "As You Were", which closes us out with calm, seagulls and oceans and breeze and all that. This has been quite the journey to bring us to this ending, but I've enjoyed every minute of it.

REACTIONS: Devin Townsend is a musical genius. Few (if any) can write as varied and as enjoyable a catalog of music as he has, and these four albums truly showcase every bit of his impressive talent. I can't wait to listen again.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Single Review: Symphony X - The End Of Innocence

Symphony X: The End of Innocence
Year: 2011
Click here for the artist's site

It has been a few years since Symphony X released their last effort, Paradise Lost.  They have been busy, of course, with multiple other side projects.  But fortunately, they buckled down and have finished up a new album.  The End of Innocence is the first single to be released from the upcoming album Iconoclast.

Right from the start, the Michaels are in your face, with crushing guitars from Michael Romeo and fabulous keyboard acrobatics from Michael Pinnella.  The beginning really has a great feel to it.  In fact, this same synergy really carries through the entire song with some stellar work from each of the members.  Lest I shun the rhythm section, Michael Lepond and Jason Rullo propel the music forward in usual, excellent fashion.

As always, Russell Allen does a fabulous job, with both some rough, gritty vocals as well as a fantastic use of his rich, impressive clean vocals.  There is no doubt that Allen is one of the most versatile and talented singers in rock/metal these days, and he puts that versatility to good use in this track.

The End of Innocence certainly has a bit of a heavier and darker feel than tracks on Paradise Lost, which serves the material well.  Yet never is lost the versatility, theatricality and pure sense of music the band is so well known and regarded for.  While I have enjoyed all the recent albums from this band, as a lead single, The End of Innocence has me more excited for this album than I have been in a long time.

Final Verdict: Adore It
There are few bands out there with the pure ability that Symphony X possesses.  This looks to be another excellent addition to their catalog, and potentially some of their strongest music yet.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Kamelot announcement: They're dropping like flies

Are you kidding me?

First, Jeff Loomis and Van Williams leave Nevermore yesterday.  Now Roy Khan is leaving Kamelot.  This is really sad news.  Kamelot is a talented band, and their playing and songwriting is great.  However, Roy's voice is really what pushed them over the top for me.

While I have been disappointed by their past two releases, Roy's vocals have never been the reason for that.  I suppose the writing was on the wall when it was announced that he wouldn't be doing vocals on the tour for them.  But it is sad to hear he is leaving.

I hope they can find an equally capable vocalist.  Their style really has relied on the strength of his vocals.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Quoth the raven, "Nevermore"

I previously posted on Mike Portnoy's departure from Dream Theater.  That was disappointing, mostly because he was such a stalwart of the band.  For me though, Dream Theater hasn't really interested me for years, so I couldn't really get too worked up. 

Not today though.

Jeff Loomis and Van Williams, lead guitar and drummer for Nevermore, announced today their decision to split from the band.  Something was fishy when the band announced a week or so ago that they were cancelling the rest of their shows this year and that a statement would be forthcoming.

It never came.  Looks like this was probably it though. 

This is certainly disappointing.  Nevermore has but out some of the very best American prog/power/speed/thrash/technical metal for the past decade and a half.  And I really, really like Warrel Dane's voice.  There is no question in my mind though that Jeff Loomis' playing and writing has been the real heart of the band.  You need to look no further than his excellent solo album "Zero Order Phase" to hear just how crucial he is to the band.  Whether or not they continue with new people, as far as I am concerned, Nevermore is done.

I will look forward to what Jeff and Van do in the future, as they are both immensely talented musicians.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The year in rearview: 2010 edition

Good grief.  I am slow.  I am lame.

I have though many times about writing this post, about what I would say, what music I would discuss.  But I never let myself get around to it.  Well here it is.  Only 4 months late.  Sweet.  Also, I'm not doing the top ten thing here.  These are just some albums that, in one way or the other, I thought worth mentioning.

The Disappointing
Okay, let's start with the few things that let me down.  There really isn't going to be much here, as I just didn't spend time with music that didn't wow me.  I mean, I do this as a hobby.  I'm not getting paid, so I won't subject myself to unnecessary pain.

Joe Satriani - Black Swans and Wormhole Wizards
Oh Joe, what happened to you?  I mean, I sill have an undying love for his older music, pretty much up until Engines of Creation.  There are still some really great songs on Strange Beautiful Music and Is There Love in Space?  But since then, I'll just pass.  Three albums in a row that aren't even worth listening to, let alone buy.  Not a positive trend for who was, for many years, my absolute favorite guitarist.

Kamelot - Poetry for the Poisoned
I really fell in love with Kamelot with the release of The Black Halo.  But I don't know if it is me or the band, but nothing since that albums has really grabbed me.  Their latest was no different.  There were some great parts, but not enough to make me want to come back regularly. 

Deftones - Diamond Eyes
This album started out so strong, but then just quickly lost me.  For whatever reason, I just don't like these guys that much anymore.  I was really left kind of feeling meh after this one.

The Good
There is a fair bit here, for good reason.  I'll just give you a quick run down.

Fear Factory - Mechanize
Fear Factory has been releasing albums for years since their groundbreaking second full length release, Demanufacture.  And I think it is pretty universally held that they hadn't met up to the high bar that release set.  That is until 2011.  I personally think that with Mechanize they not only reached that bar, but set it even higher.  There is a full review here for my thoughts.  It is sufficient to say that I still think it is a brilliant album, and their very best.

Nevermore - The Obsidian Conspiracy
Here is the thing, Jeff Loomis is THE MAN.  He has an absolutely uncanny ability to play heavy, fast, techincal and yet astonishingly beautiful music.  He can take a ridiculous riff, play it so fast that your head is spinning, but still make it lovely and musical.  That skill was evident all over his solo album, and is firmly entrenched on Nevermore's latest.  These guys are one of the greatest American metal bands.  This is another fantastic release from them.

The Ocean - Heliocentric/Anthropocentric
We have reviews here and here for these albums.  They are awesome, and taken together are very powerful.  They are inventive, evocative and fascinating musical experiments.

Coheed and Cambria - Year of the Black Rainbow
The story for which this album is a prequel is too silly, too overwrought in the worst way of comic stories could possibly be.  But the music on this album is consistently great, and consistent is the one thing that Coheed and Cambria have not been up to this point.  They have been moving that direction with each album, but didn't realize that until this one.  My favorite of theirs, it is a great place to start exploring these guys.

Soilwok - The Panic Broadcast
These Swedes know what they want to do, and they do it very well.  Adding a bit of a groove feel to the "Gothenburg metal" sound, they manage to not sound too samey to their compatriots.  The Panic Broadcast is probably the best example of this in many years.  They riffs are massive, manic and melodic in that particularly Swedish way, but with a healthy dose of Pantera mixed in.

Alter Bridge - ABIII
I have a confession to make.  I really, I mean really liked Creed back in the day.  Okay, now that I got that off my chest, I feel better.  Even though I really can't listen to them anymore (Scott Stapp rubs me so wrong), I still really like the sound of Mark Tremonti's guitar.  So I have been a big fan of Alter Bridge since their debut album.  Now on their third, it is probably their best yet.  This is also their darkest album to date.  Even the songs that start off sounding like butterflies and rainbows (I'm exaggerating a bit here) turn dark at some point.  It is an interesting, if minor, evolution of the sound of this band.   

Star One - Victims of the Modern Age
Again, no surprise this is on the list if anyone read my reviewThis is just another shinning example that Arjen Lucassen is brilliant.  Seriously.  Go, find something this man has done and listen.  Now.  Really.

Hans Zimmer - Inception OST
I'm a sucker for Hans Zimmer.  His overwrought, distinct style just gets me every time.  It didn't hurt that this soundtrack was for such a great movie.  But the music helps the movie be even better.  Taken alone, I find the soundtrack a compelling listening experience.  If you like the movie, it is even better.

Enslaved - Axioma Ethica Odini
Yes, I love this album.  If you had told me in January that my favorite album of the year would come from these Norwegian Viking/Black/Progressive metallers, I would have balked.  I would have believed it would have been in my top ten.  However, I was absolutely not prepared for just powerful, dynamic, and impressive this album would be.

Daft Punk - Tron: Legacy OST
So here was the biggest surprise.  Obviously, I am a bit of a hard rock/metal head.  Out of nowhere, Daft Punk came and smacked me upside the head with a fantastic melding of electronica and orchestral soundtrack goodness.  I seriously obsessed over this album and still love nearly every minute of it.