Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Skid Row: Subhuman Race

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Subhuman Race
By: Skid Row
Year: 1995

The late 80's saw a flourishing of glam and hair metal. For better or worse, a number of sissy acts who pretended to use electric guitars came into prominence and forever dirtied the world of metal. Acts like Poison, Motley Crue, and Slaughter capitalized on songs of hedonism and lasciviousness. And they did it all with pretty boy hair, and sometimes even pretty girl makeup. But while glam or hair metal was certainly very popular in its time (before grunge really took over), too often bands were mistakenly dumped in the glam metal category. Skid Row was one such band.

Sure, their first release had some sappy metal ballads, and the lead singer had a flowing blonde locks and almost feminine good looks. But looking past the surface, one can see that Skid Row was much more metal and very little glam. Their final release with Sebastian Bach as front man, "Subhuman Race" epitomizes this. A gritty, gutsy album from the very beginning, this is metal. No glam allowed.

This is the kind of album that we needed in the mid 90's. Sadly, too many overlooked it, still thinking of them as a hair band. Thick, heavy guitars fill the album. Even the ballads are dark and brooding. Borrowing the best aspects of grunge, and melding them with great guitar solos, some thrash aspects, and good, old fashioned American metal, Skid Row created one of the best heavy metal albums of the past decade. No pretenses, no posturing. Sebastian has never sounded better. Growling when he needs to, wailing at the right times, and holding notes like few other metal vocalists ever could, he just does a great job on this album. The rest of the band pulls through as well. The rhythm section backs up the meaty guitars, providing a thick, chugging backdrop to the songs.

Tracks to catch:"Eileen" is a great ballad that ends with a nut-busting twist. Not your mom's ballad. "Beat Yourself Blind" is full of guttural growls and a grooving guitar line. "Bonehead" and "Subhuman Race" both crank things up a notch, borrowing from the speed and aggression of good old thrash metal. "Iron Will" wraps the album up kicking and screaming, not content to end quietly. But the truth is, there isn't a single bad track on this sucker.

Objective Rating: 9 out of 10
Honestly, I have never really been a Skid Row fan. I didn't care for their first album. "Slave to the Grind" had a song or two I remember from it. But this album just blew me away. It is fantastic. Lyrically, the songs are actually pretty great, much better than your standard metal fare. And the music is superb. Heavy, brooding, and full of piss and vinegar. This is great metal.

Biased Rating: 10 out of 10
Even though I wasn't a Skid Row fan, I always like Sebastian Bach's voice, and this album reminded me just what a great vocalist he is. While I agree that grunge had its highlights, there was a lot of it that was crap. Sadly, that crap buried some excellent heavy metal in its deluge of D tuned power chords. "Subhuman Race" stands tall as a true metal album that refused to give in to grunge. I have tried to think of other ways to put this, but I can't: "Subhuman Race" kicks ass. Period.

Fiona Apple: Extraordinary Machine

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Extraordinary Machine
By: Fiona Apple
Year: 2005

I’ve been an avid Fiona Apple fan since the early days, when Tidal first came out, and I heard the song “Shadowboxer” for the first time. I’ve just always been moved by her sultry, deep alto voice, creepy piano melodies, and disjointed but catchy lyrics. But I was even more a fan of her second album, When the Pawn . . . which showed so much growth as an artist and composer.

But I waited and waited for a third album. And then I waited some more. Finally, four-plus years since the release of her second album, Fiona finally blessed us with an album, and a great one it is. I think it’s probably her best; I’m absolutely enamored with it.

This album is everything that I’ve come to expect from a Fiona album. Its lyrics are disjointed, but eerily coherent. Her piano is more enjoyable than before, and the production is top-rate. In some songs, she uses an entire orchestra to get the effect she’s looking for. While this album has shown up on lots of critic’s lists of “Best Albums of 2005,” it’s the only one that I heartily agree with. This really is a wonderful album.

Tracks to catch: “Extraordinary Machine”: A solid opener, with great orchestration and weird rhyming schemes. “Get Him Back”: possibly my favorite some on the album, it bursts with energy and heart. “Tymps (the Sick in the Head Song)”: My other favorite, featuring another weird rhyme and a rhythm that gets trapped in the head.

Objective Rating: 9 out of 10
As mentioned above, the production quality is high. The band she plays with has some great synergy, and her vocals are as dark, sultry, and sensual as ever. A great album that deals with the topics of loss and retribution.

Biased Rating: 10 out of 10
There’s no need to lie. I’m a Fiona fan. I think she’s one of the most talented female artists out there right now. While she certainly doesn’t reflect the usual types of music we review on this site, her tunes are anything but plain, and really deserve a listening-to by all real music aficionados. I can’t stop listening to this disc. It’s infectious.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Fates Warning: Night on Brocken

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Night on Brocken
By: Fates Warning
Year: 1984

Sometimes a band releases a debut album that simply blows you away. Other times a debut is more of a hint of what is to come. In the case of Fates Warning's first record "Night on Brocken", the case is certainly the latter. A respectable record in its own right, "Night on Brocken" gives us a glimpse of what was to come, without giving away the end of the story.

At first glance, there is little to distinguish Fates Warning from other metal bands of the time. High pitched, wailing vocals? Check. Mystical, semi-occult lyrics? Check. Dual guitars? Check. There just isn't much that instantly sets these guys apart. But a closer inspection of this album starts to tear down these assumptions. Of course, knowing what Fates will become helps as well, but I will endeavor to set that bias aside for the majority of this article.

"Night on Brocken" is a true metal album, with very little of the progressive elements that would go on to characterize so much of the band's later work. The songs are straightforward, shorter and relatively direct. Distorted guitars abound, often trading solos mid-song. The dueling guitars also seamlessly compete for the melody, creating great guitar harmonies. Perhaps most distinctive are the vocals. While not the best showcase, I cannot say enough about John Arch's vocals. Wailing and high pitched, but possessed of an unmistakable quality, he is one of my all-time favorite vocalists. And his vocal melodies are some of the most unique in the world of metal. Rarely heading the direction you expect, the melodies on "Night on Brocken" continue to leave the listener guessing.

Note: The remastered version contains some demos and earlier versions of some songs found on the final album. The sound quality isn't great, but it is fun to hear the evolution of some of the songs.

Tracks to catch:"S.E.K" is a great acoustic piece. "Misfit" does an excellent job of highlighting the distinct vocal melodies. "Damnation" hints at some of the band's more progressive songs to come. "Shadowfax" is a fun instrumental that conjures up images of Gandalf racing across the plains of Gondor.

Rating: 2/5
"Night on Brocken" is a solid debut album. It manages to stay interesting even though it has little new to offer. Even on the remastered version the songs do feel thin and not as clear as I would have liked. Not the best album to introduce new listeners to the band, I would still say this is a must have for fans of Fates Warning.