Thursday, December 22, 2005

Porcupine Tree: Deadwing

By: Porcupine Tree
Year: 2005

Porcupine Tree is a relatively new acquisition in my music tastes. They were introduced to me by my brother, a fellow progressive music fan. The first album he told me to check out was their first big American release, 2002’s In Absentia. I picked it up, having never even heard it before, simply trusting in my brother’s taste.

Frankly, I was blown away. It was so crunchy, so sonorous, so . . . splendid! Later that week, I ran out and purchased PT’s newest release, Deadwing. Again, I was amazed at their musicality, the wonderful mesh they achieve in their sounds.

This album has barely left my CD player. I listen to it all the time; I made a copy to carry in my car, it’s one of the “old standby” albums that never leaves the Mp3 player, etc. This is a very important album for any rock fan. While Rush may be my all-time favorite band (has been since I was a little kid, and probably always will be), Porcupine Tree has quickly become my second favorite band, and the band I’m the most passionate about introducing people to. I’m officially slightly obsessed with Steven Wilson and all of his projects.

Tracks to catch: Deadwing: The opening track – this song has one of the best beginnings of any rock album; this song rocks so incredibly hard and you can’t get it out of your head – ten minutes of blessed rocking. Halo: this song has a rocking bass line that makes your car shake. Arriving Somewhere But Not Here: My other favorite track on the album; eleven minutes of fun, building from simple and soft to complete rock. Open Car: I just have to mention this song because the verses are in seventeen-eight time – who the crap can write in seventeen-eight, besides Steve Wilson?

Objective Rating: 9 out of 10
I frankly love this album. Production quality is through the roof; Steven Wilson’s stuff always is, he’s picky about it. The musicality and talent of these musicians is astounding. They just mesh in a way most bands only dream of.

Biased Rating: 10 out of 10
So, I figure if Peter can give a 9.5, can I give this alubm an eleven? This is my single favorite album that I’ve purchased this year, I think the most important progressive rock album to come out in 2005. This band is entirely not well-enough known, and I highly encourage that anyone interested pick this album up.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Kamelot: The Black Halo

The Black Halo
By: Kamelot
Year: 2005

I have to admit up front, this band is very new to me. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and internet radio, a track from Kamelot showed up on one of my Pandora radio stations (my Fates Warning station). It started slowly, built nicely, and then erupted into a marching, anthemic, powerful song. This was a band I needed to hear more of, and their most recent release "The Black Halo" seemed like a good place to start.

Kamelot are what I would call progressive power metal. And saying this is the best power metal album I have ever heard would really not be that much of a compliment. So, instead, I will say this is one of the best melodic metal albums I have ever heard. A continuation of their previous release, "Epica", "The Black Halo" carries on their retelling of the story of Faust and his deal with the devil. Like its epic source material, this album is powerful and epic in many ways as well. The album starts off with a stunning opening track "March of Mephisto", made all that more effective by guest vocalist Shagrath (of Dimmu Borgir) as the voice of Mephisto. From there, the album never looks back.

The music is melodic, moving, powerful and at times even poignant. Form the slower paced march of the first track, to the double bass flurry of the second and so on, the album moves and weaves, deftly weaving from fast to slow, light to heavy, while never losing sight of the melodic nature that makes this music so accessible to anyone. Broken up into four segments, three short interludes create the divisions. Yet somehow, the band even manages to make the interludes interesting. Power metal is known for over-the-top, fantastical lyrics, but perhaps due to the subject matter with such a rich tradition and history, Kamelot avoids that pitfall on the album. The talent of the members shines through on each track as well. The playing is excellent, the singing marvelous, and the production is just about perfect.

Tracks to catch: "March of Mephisto" is a powerful, thunderous opener that instantly draws the listener in. Emotional, gripping, and moving, there are few first tracks that are as great as this one. However, it gets even better. The epic "Memento Mori" is brilliant. A melodic and hauntingly beautiful beginning is balanced by a fast paced, dynamic metal tune. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite songs. Ever. The title track "The Black Halo" is great, with excellent guitars and keyboards complementing each other. "Interlude I: Dei Gratia", though short, is wonderful, with a melody that leaves you slightly unsettled.

Rating: 5/5
I will simply say that this is what power metal should be: epic, anthemic, melodic, majestic. Larger than life is what this album attempts to be, and it truly succeeds. This is great, great music.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

G3: Rockin' in the Free World

G3 Live: Rockin' in the Free World
By: Satriani, Vai, and Malmsteen
Year: 2004

Since 1996 guitar god Joe Satriani has organized and spearheaded the G3 tour every year or two. And occasionally we get a CD from the show. I was out of the country when the first two went on, but I found the first G3 disc and ate it up. After all, what guitar fan could pass up an album with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson playing live and together? I certainly couldn't. However, there were many aspects of the album that left me feeling a little disappointed. 2003 brought another G3 tour, and 2004 brought the release of the second CD. This time, Yngwie Malmsteen would join Satch and Vai on the stage. This should be fantastic, right?

I wish I could say yes. But the truth is I cannot. This isn't a horrible CD. In fact, it is a lot of fun to listen to. But it does have more than its fair share of problems. First, the good. All three of the guitarists are extremely talented, well respected musicians. And they can play like you wouldn't believe. Each one of them could easily lay claim to the fastest fingers award, and such shredding is well in evidence here. The production of some parts of the disc are great as well, with Satch's and Vai's songs sounding crystal clear, full and powerful. And the G3 jam is a blast, with all three taking turns soloing.

However, too often the flaws prevent this from being a really great album. Each guitarist produced his own songs, and this sorely damages Yngwie's portion of the disc. The sound is muddy, unclear, and watered down. This is particularly painful since Yngwie is the one who focuses most heavily on a veritable flurry of notes. Most get lost in the muddy sound. Also, there are a few portions of feedback that are literally painful, forcing the listener to skip ahead or turn the volume WAY down. The other biggest problem is song choice. Satch plays too many songs that we have heard before. Vai picks a first one that is just not strong, a second one that gives him plenty of space to noodle in, but little else. At least the third is a great song. Then there is Yngwie. Some of his songs are really cool, embodying his neo-classical style that can be very fun to listen to. But too much is just too extravagant, with no restraint and little regard for melody. Oh, and the attempt at the blues fails miserably and painfully. The jam fares a little better, though Yngwie picks a song (Voodoo Chile) that will never sound as good as when SRV played it on "Couldn't Stand the Weather. But hey, on the jam you aren't listening to the songs, you are listening to the solos. And there are many. Sadly, it seems that the extent of Yngwie's solo skills involve really, really fast runs, up and down the fretboard. Satch and Vai keep things much more interesting, but I just tire of every Yngwie solo. Very disappointing.

Tracks to catch: "Midnight" by Satch is a fantastic song from his ground breaking "Surfing With the Alien" album, and it actually turns out pretty cool live. "Crystal Planet" is one of my all-time favorite Satch tracks, so I can't pass up the opportunity to hear it live. "Reaping" gives Vai a lot of room to show off his shredding skills, and is a fun track. But it does pain me to hear Billy Sheehan reduced to such a pedestrian bass line for 7 minutes. "Whispering a Prayer" is beautiful, one of my favorites for sure. Finally, "Blitzkrieg" by Malmsteen is a cool song. Too bad it sounds like it is being played under water.

Rating: 2/5
I would like to rate this album as a great example of guitar playing. But while it has a lot of great guitar playing, as an album it just falls short of the mark. I am sure that live, in the show, this all comes off much better. Simply, the song choice isn't that great, there are serious production problems, and some of the playing, particularly from Yngwie, is uninspired and uninspiring. This CD should be guitar onanism at its best. Instead it leaves you feeling dissatisfied

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Flower Kings: Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve
By: The Flower Kings
Year: 2004

The Flower Kings have often been referred to as the poster child for European progressive rock. Not prog metal, just rock. I hadn’t heard anything by this band prior to this album, but I was familiar with the work of Roine Stolt on the Transatlantic project and was interested enough to pick up the album. Also, their addition of Daniel Gildenlow as a vocalist intrigued me; I had enjoyed his work in Pain of Salvation and was curious to see how “Adam and Eve” would play out.

Sadly, I was initially disappointed in this album. It wasn’t what I’d hoped; maybe it was because I was coming off a big metal kick, maybe it was because Euro-prog just wasn’t the scene for me, but I found it less-than-inspiring and kind of insipid.

But after a few more listens, I began to get into the music more. It’s incredibly layered; you have to pick it apart to really enjoy it. The more I would listen to it, the more I would come to enjoy it. Euro prog works; it’s certainly not my favorite, but The Flower Kings have at least upped themselves in my eyes.

Tracks to catch: In “Love Supreme” the words are a bit silly and preachy, but it’s got some catchy melodies and good sounds. “A Vampire’s View” is a bit quirky in its sounds, but remains one of my favorite songs on the disc. The title track “Adam and Eve” has a lot to be said for it; the message of our own materialism and foibles is timely.

Objective Rating: 7 out of 10
Overall, the production on this album sounds good. There really aren’t any troubles with that; the guitar solos, however, are uninspired, and I found the use of three vocalists at different times and in different songs to be a distraction rather than a benefit. Of the three vocalists, Gildenlow puts on the best show; those tracks featuring him as singer stick out as the best.

Biased Rating: 6 out of 10
I really WANT to like this album. It’s a decent effort; it’s got some real high points to it. But after all the hype I heard about the Flower Kings being the “cutting edge” of progressive rock, I expected more of a cut. It’s an okay album if you’ve grown tired of the real kings of prog for awhile and you’d like a break, but it’s not a disc that gains tons of time in my stereo.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Dream Theater: Octavarium

By: Dream Theater
Year: 2005

2003 was an interesting year for Dream Theater fans. It saw the release of "Train of Thought", DT's heaviest album to date. Some critics loved it, calling it their best work yet. But many fans were left with a bit of a cold feeling in the pit of their stomachs, wondering what had happened to their beloved progressive metal band, and who were these angry guys who had taken their place. A three disc live release (with accompanying DVD) improved my opinion of some of the songs from ToT, and helped to smooth out some of the ruffled feathers. Still, anticipation for their next disc was high, and the internet rumor machine was running in full force about the direction the band would take on their newest release.

A single note on the piano quietly begins "Octavarium". This slowly builds, as more sounds coalesce for what becomes a thundering opening with "The Root of all Evil". The third installment in the series written around the AA 12 step program, this is by far the strongest of the three. It also demonstrates some of the more significant changes to be found on the latest Dream Theater release. Prominent in the mix is John Myung. This has long been one of my complaints of Dream Theater records. If you have an amazing, talented bass player, you really ought to ensure he be heard in the music. While "Train of Thought" was a step in the right direction, as far as the mix is concerned, "Octavarium" really gets it right. The music is warm and full, very well balanced, and no single instrument seems dominant. With any Dream Theater album, the performances are top notch. However, too often the players demonstrate their proficiency with long passages of needless noodling. That is gratefully kept in check on "Octavarium", with the performances working to push the song forward. Finally, this album brings back some of the balance found on Dream Theater's best albums, balance that was lost on "Train of Thought".

As an album, "Octavarium" has a little something for everyone. Fast, heavy metal tunes, mellow, soulful ballads, accessible pop-rock, and a fantastic 20+ minute prog epic fill the album to near bursting with great music and great performances. It really seems that the members of the band were exercising their creative muscles while writing this one. Familiar territory is tread with songs such as "The Root of all Evil" and "Sacrificed Sons", as both deal with lyrical topics that have already been visited. But the music is fresh and refrains from becoming mundane. Lyrically, there is less anger and more reflection and even hope on this disc than in the past as well. While still dark and heavy at times, the disc ends with a feeling of lightness and hope that makes the album that much more enjoyable. Finally, enough cannot be said regarding the mix and the production of this album. Both are masterfully handled.

Tracks to catch: "The Root of all Evil" is an excellent start to the album. Building slowly with instrumental and ambient sounds, this one erupts into a great, powerful song. Also, hints of the previous songs in this cycle are found, helping to unify them all. "The Answer Lies Within" is a bit saccharine at times, but is a welcome return to Dream Theater's surprising ability with the ballad. "Panic Attack" harnesses the frenetic energy of LTE and turns it into Dream Theaters fastest, most energetic and focused song ever. This song is truly a stunning piece of progressive metal. "Sacrificed Sons" revisits the concept of religious fanaticism. It begins with eerie voice overs from the 9/11 tragedy, moves to a slow, plodding ballad, then erupts into a powerful, poignant piece of music. Finally, the title track "Octavarium" is a meandering 24 minute epic that covers a sonic landscape that nearly overwhelms in its variety. A long, extended introduction build slowly to carry the listener through quiet introspective moments, frantic cries for freedom, and orchestral interludes that keep the listener riveted throughout.

Rating: 4/5
"Octavarium" is a great album, no question. It is much more progressive than its predecessor "Train of Thought" and infinitely more varied in style and theme. It is also more focused than "Six Degrees if Inner Turbulence". The musicianship is as impressive as ever, and perhaps even more so because of the uncommon restraint demonstrated by the players. The production and mix are also worthy of note. Lowering the score, the title track, while certainly impressive, does lose focus and steam at various moments. Also, it feels that thematically, Dream Theater is revisiting the same topics again and again. They do it well on this disc, but some songs feel old because of it. Finally, while I think this is certainly Dream Theater's best since "Scenes From a Memory", it lacks some of the intensity and earnestness from such triumphs as "Awake". Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile addition to any CD catalog.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Grammy groaning

They are out! The announcements of the Grammy nominees! Yeah! Not. Every year the Grammies are announced, the music industry spends countless hours and dollars flattering themselves, and we, the masses, are willingly force fed some of the most shallow, insipid, and vacuous music that has been created. We eat it up, rushing to purchase Grammy nominated tripe, tuning in to see the artists, adding to the general buzz and bluster. Idiotic. Every year I lament the state of music and it appears that this year will be no different. I realize it is foolish of me to hope that the masses will forsake the refuse we are spoon fed daily. Call me an idealist, but I just can't accept that everyone can be so unimaginative to think that garbage such as "Hollaback Girl", "Gold Digger" or the formulaic, pseudo-sentimental tripe "We Belong Together" are worth listening to, let alone worth honoring. There is so much music out there that is really brilliant. It is artistic, it is thoughtful, it is adventurous, and it can even uplift and engage the listener. There is music that transcends the senses and connects to the listener on an emotional level. Sure, we all need a break from the dense stuff at times. Pop music has its place for thoughtless escapism. But its place is not up on a pedestal, to be honored by the masses. Can you tell it pisses me off?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Opeth: Ghost Reveries

Ghost Reveries
By: Opeth
Year: 2005

With the release of "Blackwater Park" Opeth did something that has damaged the careers of many other bands: They released a perfect album. Other bands release what is often considered their greatest work and then spend the rest of their careers trying to recapture that moment. Opeth, wisely, refuses to do that. They have continued to evolve, to experiment, and to craft excellent music. Each new album since that time has been unique, and the excitement for their newest, "Ghost Reveries", was very intense. Fueling the excitement and speculation were three major changes for the band. First was the addition of Per Wiberg on keyboards. Opeth has had keys in the past, but never a full-time keyboardist. Second was the absence of Steve Wilson as producer on the album. Third, in the interim between "Damnation" and "Ghost Reveries" Opeth signed a deal with RoadRunner Records, a label known for angry, angst-driven 'nu-metal' bands. These factors, along with the fact that "Damnation" was such a singular album in the Opeth catalog, resulted in many rumblings about what the new album would bring.

Reaction to the first single "The Grand Conjuration" was mixed. Some thought it a new level in Opeth metal. Others thought it too accessible. Whichever side of the battle you stand on though, this song gave clues of what was to come with the release of the album, but nothing more. "Ghost Reveries" stays true to Opeth's recent records, while still treading some new waters. Don't expect a reinvention of the wheel here. Rather we are treated to a refining and retooling of the sound that has defined metal's most brilliant band for years now. "Ghost Reveries" starts off with the title track, a beautiful and brutal epic that blends the different styles Opeth is known for. Mixing aggressive metal with acoustic passages, guttural growls with excellent clear vocals, pummeling double bass with hints of jazz fusion, Opeth carves out their place in metal history even more with this album. While individual songs on the disc have less calm acoustic passages, the inclusion of three full songs that could have come straight off "Damnation" more than make up for it. They serve nicely to balance the album, adding depth to the experience.

So what about the three big changes? How do they effect the album? In reverse order, the band signing with RoadRunner will only help both the label and the band. It provides Opeth wider distribution outside of Europe and will add to their exposure. In turn, it provides RoadRunner with a more established, critically acclaimed band that is widely respected. Second, I actually had to look through the liner notes to confirm that Steve Wilson wasn't involved. The production is excellent, and Steve's knack for progressive music is all over this record. His influence continues to be felt. Finally, Per Wiberg helps to add depth to the sound of the band, filling the music nicely with his key work. Some find the keyboards at the beginning of "The Baying of the Hounds" and "Beneath the Mire" to be somewhat over the top and out of place. I vehemently disagree with them, particularly with the keyboards at the beginning of "Beneath the Mire". They manage to capture perfectly the organ sound from old black and white horror films, and given the subject matter of the disc, this is a subtle and effective touch that is certainly not out of place. All in all, I believe that the changes have only helped to strengthen the band.

Tracks to catch: "Ghost Reveries" is a brilliant song, both brutal and haunting, and a very effective introduction to the album. "Atonement" is a meandering, spacey piece that rolls over the listener in gentle waves. It is reminiscent of 70's prog at its best. "The Baying of the Hounds" is another punishing track, yet never to the point of overwhelming the listener. Opeth seems to have a talent for pushing the listener to the edge and then stepping back just when you least expect it, but most need it. Finally "The Grand Conjuration" is an epic anthem not to be missed. The principal riff is one of the most memorable in all of metal, and while it is used extensively, it builds in such a way to pull the listener along to the mighty climax. This song will be simply amazing live. It has become one of my favorite Opeth songs.

Objective Rating: 9 out of 10
Do not mistake "Ghost Reveries" for a "Blackwater Park II". That is not what this album was meant to be. This is another step forward in an impressive catalog of a band that refuses to stagnate. A brilliant album in every aspect: the writing is amazing, the performances second to none, and the production is flawless. Opeth continues to push their progressive edge, without losing any of their metal might. Mikael further impresses with his voice, using his clean vocals more on this disc than any other (with the obvious exception of "Damnation"), allowing for his growl to have even more effect when employed. It is apparent that his work with the brilliant Arjen Lucassen on "The Human Equation" left an indelible mark on him. The balance of aggressive and tranquil music on this disc will allow it to appeal to an even more broad audience. I cannot call "Ghost Reveries" the band's best work to date (I have to give that nod to "Blackwater Park"), but it is an amazingly strong album from a band who seems incapable of creating anything less than excellent.

Biased Rating: 9 out of 10
Truly, the only bias I may have when it comes to this disc is my love of the band. Opeth has done no wrong in their eight album career. In fact, I can think of no song on any of their albums that I simply won't listen to. There are certainly some I like more than others, but not a single song I would say is a stinker. That alone tells you how impressed I am by the band. "Ghost Reveries" stands tall as one of the strongest releases of 2005, with or without any sort of bias on my part.