Monday, March 17, 2008

Chevelle: Vena Sera

Chevelle: Vena Sera

Year: 2007

Click here for the artist's site

Chevelle blew me away with their debut album, Point #1 back in 1999. It was urgent, raw, full of energy and passion. Over the course of the past few years, internal problems, mostly focused around youngest brother and bassist Joe Loeffler, took something of a toll on the band.

On their third release, This Type of Thinking (Could Do Us In), this internal turmoil resulted in a record that was too formulaic, lacked much real energy, and was quickly forgettable. With the addition of Dean Bernardini (brother-in-law to Sam and Pete, talk about keeping it in the family) as the official and full-time bassist, could Chevelle reinvigorate themselves?

Vena Sera, their latest release, answers that question with a positive, if not fully convincing, yeah, probably.

Vena Sera definitely rises above its predecessor, mostly on the strength of it variation. Whereas This Type of Thinking felt like the same song over and over and over again (with the exception of the final acoustic track "Bend the Bracket"), Vena Sera does seem to have a bit more going on. There are still plenty of mid-tempo, chugging rockers that Chevelle has become expert at. However, the are more acoustic guitars, a few more mellow tracks, and some up-tempo tracks.

This variation helps Vena Sera from feeling too stagnant. However, the band still hasn't captured the frantic energy that made Point #1 such a strong album. Likewise, missing is the utter confidence and polish that powered Wonder What's Next.

Musically, the mix is perfect. The bass is present, but not overpowering. The guitars have just enough edge to them to keep this from sounding anemic, without spilling over into the realm of true heavy metal. Pete Loeffler's vocals continue to walk the fine line between clear, melodic singing and guttural screams, with a bit more emphasis on the singing this record. As This Type of Thinking suffered from too much angst, the more present clean vocals strengthen the record. Lyrically, Chevelle continues to attempt to wax poetic, while generally just coming across as somewhat incomprehensible. But that is just what they do. At least it hasn't changed.

Tracks to catch: "Antisaint" has a great, angry chorus that just begs you to sing along. "Humanoid" is one of the darker songs, with some powerful guitars that help it build to a monstrous crescendo. "I Get It" is a pleasant change of pace, with its acoustic guitar based verses. "Midnight to Midnight" is a solid track as well, with an excellent bridge section.

Rating: 3/5

Vena Sera will be immediately familiar to fans of the band's previous work. The album immediately feels comfortable. This also hinders the record, as there is little new here to look forward to. The subtle variability certainly makes Vena Sera more interesting than the bands previous release. However, if you aren't already a fan, Vena Sera isn't going to do much to win you over.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ayreon: 01011001

Ayreon: 01011001
Year: 2008
Click here for the artist's site

Arjen Lucassen set the bar high back in 2004. No, not just high. He set the bar incredibly, astronomically high. The Human Equation is, in my opinion, the single finest rock opera and progressive rock/metal epic ever written. That powerful. Yes, I think it is better than The Wall, Tommy, Dark Side of the Moon or just about anything else you could bring up.

How in the world do you follow that up? Simple, you leave the world behind.

01011001 is the continuation of the massive sci-fi epic that Arjen has been crafting since the release of The Final Experiment back in 1995. The scope of the story is well beyond this article. It is sufficient to say that every Ayreon album has been a cog in the greater wheel of this masterful rock opera.

And as far as epic goes, there are none more epic than 01011001.

Again spanning two discs, weighing in at very nearly 2 hours, 01011001 tells the story of Forever and their attempts to rediscover emotions. One of Arjen's greatest strengths is his ability to synthesize disparate styles of music in his story telling. There are plenty of heavy, crashing, thunderous moments of metal guitar. These are carefully juxtaposed to quite moments of acoustic reflection and introspection. Progressive rock, electronic music, and pop sensibilities are all brilliantly melded together to create the most musically diverse album in the past years.

Arjen heads up the instrumentalists, providing the majority of the guitars, bass and keyboards. However help abounds, with keyboard solos from the likes of Joost van den Broek (After Forever), Tomas Bodin (The Flower Kings), and Derek Sherinian (Planet X, Platypus, Dream Theater). Lori Linstruth (Stream of Passion) and Michael Romeo (Symphony X) lend their talents on some fabulous guitar solos. Ed Warby continues to impress as one of the most powerful and versatile drummers in music today. Cello, violin, flutes and recorders round out the instrumentalists.

The other highlight of any Ayreon album is the guest vocalists. Arjen pulls out all the stops on 01011001. There are 17 vocalists, many of them huge names in the world of rock and metal. The list is extensive, but includes such luminaries as Tom Englund (Evergrey), Daniel Gildenlow (Pain of Salvation), Jonas Renske (Katatonia), Hansi Kursch (Blind Guardian, Demons and Wizards), Floor Jansen (After Forever), Ty Tabor (King's X), and Jorne Lande to name just a few. Each vocal performance is powerful, and for the first time in years we hear Jonas Renske's growl.

Tracks to catch: "Comatose" is a haunting, chilling minimalist tune that highlights the emotional loss of Forever. "Connect the Dots" is a biting satire of our reliance on technology. "The Fifth Extinction" is an explosive start to the second disc. "Liquid Eternity" explores the blessing and damnation Forever have discovered in their mechanical form. "The Sixth Extinction" finishes the second disc off and is one of the most powerful, progressive epics I have ever heard.

Rating: 4/5

I would love to give 01011001 5/5. However, as I strive to reserve that rating for albums that truly are essentials, I can't give 01011001 the full score. The only reason, though, is because the previous album, The Human Equation, is so brilliant and demands a perfect score. Don't let that detract from the power and brilliance of 01011001, though. This is a magnificent album, and sure to be one of the best albums of the year. Arjen again proves that he has the Midas touch. Fans of metal, folk, acoustic, pop, prog and even electronica can all find something to enjoy on this album. Lyrically, the story is coherent, cohesive, and powerful. Again, Arjen demonstrates that he is perhaps one of the most brilliant minds in progressive music. I recommend 01011001 without reservation to music fans everywhere.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Rush: Snakes and Arrows

Rush: Snakes and Arrows

Year: 2007

Click here for the artist's site

Five years have passed since the last real studio album from Rush. 2004's Feedback was an entertaining foray into the realm of cover songs, but it never got a lot of play for me. After all, these weren't Rush songs. They were fun, but didn't feel right. The boys from the Great White North appeased fans in the meantime with first Rush in Rio on both CD and DVD (yes, I have both). This release really set a high water mark that all concert DVDs should aspire to. Next came R30, a DVD worth it alone if for nothing other than seeing Jerry Stiller headbanging whenever you want. Finally, they released Replay x3, a reissue of three older Rush concert shows on DVD.

But none of these really sated our hunger for some new Rush songs.

When they announced last year that they were entering the studio, well, the excitement began to build. Finally, after many months and loads of teases from the band, on May 1st, Snakes and Arrows was released.

And what we have is, quite honestly, a joy to experience.

Eschewing the trends set by some of their peers, Rush has once again set the bar incredibly high for rock music. Snakes and Arrows is a complex album, full of shifting musical direction, changing time signatures, and musical dichotomies. But more importantly, it is a thoughtful, introspective, emotional and stirring album.

The album kicks off with "Far Cry", a rousing track that starts things off in fantastic fashion. Electric and acoustic guitars in a stuttering start/stop fashion that sounds distinctly Rush ramp the energy up. It is a great opening track, and one of Rush's best singles in years. From there, the album never looks back.

Musically, Snakes and Arrows is one of Rush's most diverse albums ever. Written almost entirely on acoustic guitars, their presence permeates the songs, adding a sense of depth to the tracks. This also provides for some truly beautiful melodies and acoustic passages. However, don't let that fool you to thinking this is Rush growing old. Snakes counters this with some of the heaviest passages in years as well. This is a more polished heaviness than 2002's Vapor Trails, though. Whereas VT was much more pure energy and aggression, S&A is a more balanced, metered style.

On the surface, the lyrics on Snakes and Arrows appear to be some of the more dark, depressing lyrics Neil has penned in years, easily since Grace Under Pressure. What elevates each song is a hint of hope. A careful review demonstrates a constant theme of endurance despite all challenges. In "Far Cry" Neil pens "One day I feel I’m on top of the world/And the next it’s falling in on me/I can get back on/I can get back on". "We Hold On" finishes the album with the anthemic chorus "Keep going on until dawn/How many times must another line be drawn/We could be down and gone/But we hold on". Distinctly political and social on context, but still remaining deeply personal, Neil has penned perhaps his most poignant lyrics of his career.

Finally, I must mention the three, yes three, instrumentals on the album. Rush has long been known for their instrumentals, from such classics as "La Villa Strangiato" and "YYZ" to more recent offerings such as "Limbo". Never before, though, have they packed three on one album. The first, "The Main Monkey Business" is a romping, energetic tune that is classic Rush. Sudden interplay between acoustic and electric guitars, varying styles and time signatures, this is an instant classic, and their strongest instrumental since "YYZ". Next is "Hope", a 2 minute breath of fresh air on Alex Lifeson's 12 string acoustic guitar. It is a beautiful piece, with just a hint of come Celtic and even Middle Eastern melodies thrown in. Finally, the most spontaneous of the three, "Malignant Narcissism" is a rollicking romp, full of jazz inspired beats and rhythms, rapid fire solos from drums and bass and just an overwhelming sound of three long time friends who happen to be extremely talented musicians just having a good time.

Rating: 5/5

Snakes and Arrows is a marvelous album. It has a wonderful depth to it, that begs repeat listens. It tackles real, difficult political and social issues with grace, never coming across as preaching or pedantic, rather reflective and introspective. It has every element that makes a Rush album such a pleasure, great lyrics, stunning music, and a subtle sense of humor that is so refreshing. The production, handled by Nick Raskulinecz, is flawless. Every instrument has its place and is crystal clear. The artwork, once again handled by Hugh Syme, is beautiful. This is, without doubt, Rush's strongest album since Moving Pictures, and album I often refer to as a perfect album. In some ways, Snakes and Arrows even gives Moving Pictures a run for its money. Without reservation I give Snakes and Arrows a perfect score.

Dream Theater: Systematic Chaos

Dream Theater: Systematic Chaos
Year 2007

2007 marked a transition for Dream Theater. They escaped the confines of their Warner music label over to one of metal's biggest labels, Roadrunner Records (of course, the beautiful irony is that Roadrunner was bought out by Warner in the beginning of 2007, though this all happened after the plan to switch labels). Would a change in record labels lead to a change in direction for one of progressive metal's best known bands? Systematic Chaos would be the album to answer that question.

And the answer is yes, unfortunately.

Admittedly, the changes are subtle, and could easily be overlooked. First and most immediately noticeable was the decision to break the track "In the Presence of Enemies" into two tracks. This effectively halts the momentum of the song and takes what could have been a 25 minute epic into two lesser, somewhat confusing and disjointed tracks. Another major change on the album is thematic in nature.

It is this second that is most disappointing.

Dream Theater's lyrics have often run the gamut, ranging from thoughtful and somewhat introspective, to political, to religious. There have even been moments of fantasy (such as the concept of Metropolis part II). But when it comes to their music, Dream Theater has always presented themselves as very serious artists. And this serious attitude is, ultimately, what damns Systematic Chaos.

Metal music has never been above dark, fantasy lyrics. Yet the bands that pull it off best are those who are obviously putting on a show. Symphony X has always had lyrics that border on the ridiculous. Swords, sorcery, knights and dragons are all part and parcel of any Symphony X album. It works, though, because you can tell it is a conscious effort to make their music larger than life, to separate it from reality and use it to create a moment or two of fantasy for the listener. On Systematic Chaos, however, everything comes across so earnest, so serious, that it becomes impossible to just ignore the lyrical abortion that the album is. Tackling fantasy themes with the restraint, tact, and style of a libidinous teenager, each track is cringe inducing trial to suffer through.

Musically, the album has some very strong moments, with some of Dream Theater's heaviest, most crushing guitar riffs recorded. As is expected, the music has many technical elements and is very skillfully played. Yet it is time someone remind the band that more notes does not excellent music make. Finally, Jordan Rudess again proves that he is, quite possibly, the worst thing to happen to Dream Theater. A technically talented keyboardist, he feeds into the "flurry of notes as mental onanism" mindset that has become a weakness of Dream Theater albums since Awake. That, coupled with his atrocious choices in sound effects (really, who thinks that a rag-time piano solo fits in the middle of near death metal guitar riffs?) creates an enormous barrier to the music of Systematic Chaos being enjoyable.

Tracks to catch: "Constant Motion" is a decent single, that works to showcase much of what Dream Theater has become. "The Dark Eternal Night" tries to be interesting (though the horrifyingly bad lyrics and aforementioned rag-time piano completely ruin this track for me). "In The Presence of Enemies" wants to be a big, epic song, though it is neutered by being split into two smaller tracks.

Rating: 2/5

Systematic Chaos is for completists, those who just have to have everything by a band they love. And there is actually quite a bit to potentially love in this album. However, the good is so outweighed by the bad that I just can't forgive it. Lyrically it is painful. Musically, it has some very strong moments which are overwhelmed by self-indulgent instrumental wankery that lacks all style and tact. Chalk this up as one of my biggest disappointments of 2007.

Ratings: Revealed!

As a guide to ratings on Progged, please keep in mind the following:
  • 5/5: This is reserved for essential recordings. If an album gets a 5 it means we think this is really an album that any true music fan should experience.
  • 4/5: This denotes the album is an excellent addition to any music collection, but not an essential. Most really great albums probably should get this at the very highest.
  • 3/5: A good albums for fans of the style/band, but not something that will be winning over new fans or changing the way someone thinks about music.
  • 2/5: An album best reserved for those who are completists, those who really want to have every album by said band.
  • 1/5: Gluttons for punishment. Little to no redeeming values.

Hopefully that guide keeps the ratings used clear. This is all in an effort to avoid the dreaded 6-9 review scale that seems to plague review sites.