Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Evergrey: Monday Morning Apocalypse

Monday Morning Apocalypse Artist: Evergrey Year: 2006 Sweden's Evergrey has carved out quite a niche for themselves. I can think of no other band that really comes close to their brand of somewhat progressive, dark, and melancholic power metal. And with their previous five albums, they have built quite an expectation for their fans. Dark and brooding lyrics, excellent musicianship, powerful guitars, and distinctive, gravelly vocals have helped to make each album worth checking out. With a number of well-thought out and orchestrated concept albums now under their belts, what does the band have in store on their latest offering Monday Morning Apocalypse? Both less and more. Monday Morning Apocalypse sees Evergrey honing their trademark sound to a fine edge. Always impeccable musicians, their latest release focuses on a more intense, focused approach to the music. Some have already decried Monday Morning Apocalypse as a sell-out album, Evergrey's attempt to break into the mainstream. But rather than sell-out, this sort of talk sells the album short. Stripped from much of the pretension that is present on previous albums, this is a more open, more accessible, and more sincere Evergrey. But don't let that fool you. The thunderous guitars that make Evergrey so fun to listen to are all over the album. Pummeling riffs on such tracks as "The Curtain Fall" and "At Loss for Words" are carefully balanced with the balladry of tracks like "I Should" and "In Rememberance." Gone is the pomp of the concept album trying to tell a large, overarching story. Rather, we get an album of more self-contained songs. The lyrical work is undeniably dark and brooding, but that is what Evergrey does best. Likewise, lead singer Tom S. Englund's vocals continue to impress through understatement. He isn't going to hit any amazing, clarion clear high notes like John Arch, blow you away with his demonic growls like Mikael Akerfeldt, or wrap you in the warmth of his voice like Eric Clayton, but his gravelly baritone fits the mood of the music perfectly. In fact, that is what makes Monday Morning Apocalypse such a strong album: everything just fits together. The lyrics, the instrument work, the writing, all come together to create Evergrey's most focused effort to date. Tracks to Catch: "The Curtain Fall" has a some really killer, fast-paced guitar work. "At Loss for Words" balances the band's frantic aggression with its slower-paced style. "Monday Morning Apocalypse" is a powerful, in-your-face rocker that kicks the album off in a great way. "Till Dagmar" is a beautiful piano interlude. "Closure" is simply Tom Englund and a piano - an amazingly moving, open and vulnerable way to end the album. Rating: 4/5 Monday Morning Apocalypse is more than the sum of its parts. Less progressive than past releases in terms of concept and orchestration, yet more progressive if we really think about what that word means. This is Evergrey taking their sound and nudging it in a different direction. This is an album made by a band that is confident of its identity and is comfortable trying something that breaks its own mold, if even just a bit. Monday Morning Apocalypse gives us a peek at Evergrey at their most sincere, their most earnest, and their most focused.

Astral Doors: Astralism

Astralism Artist: Astral Doors Year: 2006 Although they have only been around since 2002, Astral Doors has a sound that belies their recent creation and hearkens back to the real roots of metal. Members of various bands at various times, a passion for solid, unpretentious heavy metal brought the band together and 2006 sees them releasing their third album: Astralism. From the very first bombastic chords, it is evident that Astralism is ready to rock. Driving, distorted guitars, pummeling drums, a Hammond organ, and a vocalist who sounds so similar to Dio (especially from his Sabbath and Rainbow days) it is almost eerie at times, all kick the album into high gear. And from there it doesn't look back. Astralism is an album for heavy metal purists. Dark, brooding lyrics dealing with the physical as well as the metaphysical fill the album. But rather than just revel in the darkness, the songs do have a lighter side, a sense of striving for a better world buried in the lyrics. This is very refreshing to hear, as it serves as an excellent balance. Every song is a balls-to-the-wall metal tune. There may be an occasional acoustic guitar here and there, but 99% is just begging for some head-banging. The music is hard and heavy, but with an emphasis on melody. The presence of the Hammond is especially effective in uniting the melodic elements throughout each song. Likewise, vocalist Patrick Johansson walks the fine line between wailing and singing, his gravelly voice giving a sense of urgency to the music. Tracks to catch: "Apocalypse Revealed" is the closest the album gets to a real epic track, and this one is a winner. Clocking in at near 8 minutes, it is an excellent closer to the album. "Israel" effectively adds a multitude of voices, adding an emotional quality to the slower, dirge-like track. "Tears From a Titan" slowly warms you up with a Hammond intro before the songs really kicks in. "EVP" is a fast paced, driving track that starts the whole show off nicely. Rating: 3/5 Astralism is a very strong release, and will surely appeal greatly to those who are fans of solid, powerful, classic heavy metal. The music is uncompromising, but nicely balances grit with melody. The Hammond is very prominent in most of the tracks, perhaps too prominent at times. Scaling the organ back and bringing the bass into the mix more would give the music just that much more power. Fans of heavy metal owe it to themselves to check out Astral Doors and their brand of classic/modern metal.

Grave Digger: 25 to Live

25 to Live Artist: Grave Digger Year: 2006 Heavy metal is not pretty. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is trying to sell you something - but it sure does rock. After 25 years of rocking, Grave Digger has finally released a live compilation worth celebrating, and they are dishing it up both on CD and DVD for us to enjoy. Formed in 1980, Grave Digger has been one of Germany's brightest stars in the metal arena for years now. Over the past few years, their releases have consistently garnered high praise, and 25 to Live is no different. Recorded in 2005 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 25 to Live offers an excellent chronicle of the band's career, spanning their numerous albums. The show was a relatively simple one, allowing the audience to really focus on what they came for: kick-ass heavy metal, with no pretension. There are no elaborate light shows (though of course some changing colors and flashing now and then), no elaborate stage set-up: just five guys giving it their all to rock the crowd. And the crowd responded appreciatively. There is a reason that so many rock bands record live albums in Brazil: on every live release I have ever heard recorded in Brazil, the crowd is simply insane. The crowd coming to see Grave Digger that night was no different. They sang along to every word, and often even to the music when there were no words! They consistently chanted between just about every song. They went nuts every time lead singer Chris Boltendahl screamed "Obrigado!" The energy infused in the show is infectious, and I found myself pumping my fist in the air right along with them. The band is great as well. Monster guitar riffs, machine-gun staccato, lightning fast solos, thundering bass, and pummeling drum work prove that after 25 years, Grave Digger has plenty of life in them. They really seem to be enjoying themselves, evident in the interaction with each other and the crowd. The music is very tight, the playing excellent, and the energy from the band is absolutely great. The DVD manages to capture the band from many angles, with some shots right up on stage and others from farther away. There are a few cheesy "special effects" here and there, some added light halos and some slow motion, but they hardly distract from the music, and actually fit right in with the necessary willingness to suspend reality to enjoy this type of music. The extras are sparse, chronicling the band's journey and preparation from the concert. But, with such a fantastic, 27-song show, the concert is the real centerpiece of the package. Rating: 4/5 25 to Live is an excellent example of a great heavy metal release. The music is energetic, the crowds enthusiasm infectious, and the song selection is a very nice sample of the band's long career. 25 to Live is sure to please long time Grave Digger fans, and will also certainly earn the band some new fans who decide to check it out. This is true heavy metal, killer riffs and wailing vocals at their very best. It ain't pretty, but it sure does rock.