2016: Top 10 Albums

Plenty of good albums this year, some not so good. Here’s my top 10 in ascending order:

10. Amon Amarth – Jomsviking

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The first concept album for the Swedish vikings, Jomsviking is a diverse set of songs telling an original story of love, war and betrayal. Full of emotive and hard-hitting anthems that will become popular live staples, particularly “Raise Your Horns”.

9. Sabaton – The Last Stand

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The Last Stand, a collection of songs about famous battles against the odds, sees Sabaton at their most exuberant. Epic and cinematic on one hand, direct and succinct on the other, songs like “Blood of Bannockburn” will get blood and fists pumping everywhere.

8. Grand Magus – Sword Songs

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3rd successive Swedish band here (other nationalities are coming up, promise), Grand Magus live, breathe and eat metal and Sword Songs is another great, steel-plated example of this. Completely eschewing trends and sub-genres, the likes of “Forged in Iron – Crowned in Steel” are among the most unadulterated metal anthems released this year.

7. Dream Theater – The Astonishing

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Ambitious even by Dream Theater’s standards, The Astonishing is the quintessential “grower” album. 130 minutes, 34 tracks, 2 discs: several listens are required to fully appreciate this sprawling sci-fi concept album. Anchored by standout songs like “The Gift of Music” and “Our New World”, The Astonishing is ultimately one of the most engrossing prog rock albums of recent years.

6. Joe Bonamassa – Blues of Desperation

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One of the most prolific artists of recent times, acclaimed blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa has moved away from cover versions on his more recent albums with Blues of Desperation solely containing self-penned material. He’s rarely sounded more impassioned, confident or technically brilliant, with the likes of “Mountain Climbing” and “Distant Lonesome Train” destined to become future classic of the blues canon.

5. Abbath – Abbath

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Proving he doesn’t need his Immortal bandmates to make great music, one of black metal’s most enduring characters has crafted a great album of grim, frosty anthems. Abbath’s debut solo album is equal parts ferocious and epic, thanks to songs like “Ashes of the Damned” and “Root of the Mountain”; hopefully a sign of even greater things to come.

4. Black Stone Cherry – Kentucky

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Following the lacklustre Magic Mountain, southern rockers Black Stone Cherry returned with arguably their strongest album to date this year. Hard-hitting, emotional and full of swagger, this is what 21st century hard rock should sound like. There’s no arguing with the likes of “Soul Machine” and a perfect cover of Edwin Starr’s “War”.

3. Avantasia – Ghostlights

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Tobias Sammet’s most ambitious rock opera yet, the likes of Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and Within Temptation’s Sharon Den Adel lend their vocal talents here, alongside regular Avantasia collaborators like Jorn Lande and Michael Kiske. Each song is perfectly crafted; from the 12 minute epic “Let the Storm Descend Upon You” to the apocalyptic powerhouse “Lucifer”, Ghostlights is a masterpiece of symphonic, gothic theatre.

2. Gojira – Magma 

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A band I’ve not paid much attention to before, France’s Gojira have received a bit of stick from longterm fans for releasing an album with a somewhat more commercial sound than previous efforts. I however believe that Magma has the potential to be a Black Album for the 21st century; an accessible metal album that can appeal to mainstream rock fans whilst retaining the crushing heaviness and intricacy that have cemented Gojira’s reputation. “Silvera” and the title track are among the numerous highlights here.

1.Babymetal – Metal Resistance

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No doubt a contentious choice, I can’t recall the last time a band divided the metal community so much. For my money though, this is a groundbreaking album; a seamless blend of eastern and western musical styles resulting in a strong set of songs from start to finish. “Karate”, “Meta Taro” and “The One” are among the highlights of an album that I for one will be listening to for years to come. I look forward to seeing what these young Japanese ladies come up with next.

Opeth – Sorceress

(2016, Nuclear Blast)

After spending years as a cult secret amongst prog and death metal fans, Opeth find themselves in 2016 as one of Sweden’s most successful musical exports of recent times. However, not all long-term fans have been happy with the notable change in direction on Opeth’s most recent albums; 2011’s Heritage and 2014’s Pale Communion are completely lacking in death metal elements as well as, according to some, the dynamic variety that made Opeth such an attractive proposition in the first place. Nevertheless, while new album Sorceress, their 12th full-length effort, takes several listens to reveal all its secrets, it contains plenty to please Opeth fans of all shapes and sizes.

Firstly, the acoustic guitars and pianos are present in spades on Sorceress; 5 of its 11 tracks are either wholly or primarily acoustic, making it arguably Opeth’s quietest album since 2003’s Damnation. “Persephone” is a thoroughly pleasant introduction, with expertly played Spanish guitar that evokes images of Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to The Princess Bride. “Will O the Wisp” is probably the band’s best light song since “Harvest” from 2001’s Blackwater Park; a serene pastoral melody combines with smooth jazz guitar leads and a sublime vocal performance. And the largely instrumental “The Seventh Sojourn” is an attempt at something new, with its oriental percussion and strings (an updated version of The Beatles “Within You, Without You” perhaps?) complete with characteristically haunting piano and vocals towards the end. Boxes are nicely ticked as far as showing Opeth’s talent for the lighter side of prog rock goes.

But what about the heavier stuff? Well this is Opeth’s third consecutive album to contain no death metal vocals, and I would not be surprised if they never return to that style of music. The heavy parts of Sorceress owe less to the influence of the 80s and 90s metal scenes that Mikael Åkerfeldt grew up with and more to the fuzzy rock of the 70s of which he is famously a connoisseur. The title-track/lead single is full of dirty organ riffs and jazzy drums; straight out of the 70s prog rock playbook. Staccato, chugging, sludgy guitar riffs evoke an effective doom atmosphere, a la the best work of Blood Ceremony or Candlemass; combined with a steady marching pace and accessible vocal melody, it all comes together nicely.

“Chrysalis” is easily the heaviest song on Sorceress, the only one that properly hearkens back to earlier albums like Still Life or Ghost Reveries. The fast-paced interplay between guitar and organ is superb, with plenty of technical parts to rival the intricacy of Dream Theater. “Strange Brew” is a bit all over the place, with several seemingly unconnected sections, but is ultimately quite engaging. Stark, isolated piano and clean guitars fade to a frenetic, jazzy breakdown, before an impassioned vocal cry gives way to a BIG Sabbath-esque riff and solo; a very cool 70s vibe. The album ends on a high point too with “Era”; beginning with a piano solo, it quickly shifts gear to what is essentially a fast-paced homage to Rush (I can hear “YYZ” in the main riff and “Something for Nothing” in the solo). Sorceress was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales, the same place where the likes of Rush and Led Zeppelin recorded some of their most celebrated albums, so maybe it’s only natural that all these 70s influences have rubbed off on Opeth so blatantly.

Judging all the tracks on Sorceress objectively by their respective merits, there isn’t really much to criticise in terms of either composition or delivery. My main gripe is that the album flows poorly and lacks cohesion; the frequent change of pace and style results in a disjointed feel, making Sorceress a hard album to get into (it took me a good 5 or 6 listens to properly “get” it). This album is a quintessential “grower”, which I suppose is something to be applauded in this disposable digital age. Opeth have always had an “old school” mentality; this is an album you’re supposed to sit down and properly listen to (preferably on vinyl, on a big old-fashioned stereo).

It can also be argued that Sorceress is a bit too derivative, with more emphasis on paying homage to old influences, rather than on creating something new. While Opeth firmly, and unashamedly, wear their influences on their sleeves, I feel they perform with enough idiosyncrasy for this not to be a problem. This album couldn’t be the work of anyone else; sure, Opeth have used plenty of ideas that are 40 years old but their trademark melancholic, experimental stamp is all over them. When all is said and done, Sorceress should satisfy most Opeth fans (particularly if they’re big 70s rock fans too); approach it with an open mind and a great deal of patience and you’ll be happy.

Verdict: 8/10

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Devin Townsend Project – Transcendence

Inside Out, 2016

In stark contrast to the many artists who like to take their sweet time when it comes to making new music (I’m looking at you, Tool), Canadian polymath Devin Townsend churns out new albums as if his life depends on it. Transcendence is the 7th album to be released under the “Devin Townsend Project” name and Devin’s 24th overall (from the extreme metal of Strapping Young Lad to the country rock of Casualties of Cool). Everyone has their own favourite style and era of Mr Townsend’s work and Transcendence comes across as an attempt to satisfy them all. Whether it succeeds in doing that is another matter entirely though…

Devin Townsend is undeniably a very forward-thinking musician; at his best, his idiosyncratic blending of loud and soft styles has put him lightyears ahead of his peers. Transcendence, however, starts by looking backwards with a remake of “Truth”, a song that originally appeared on the early solo album Infinity. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a quintessential example of Devin’s “wall of sound” technique; heavily layered vocals and instrumentation, and thoroughly bombastic. A powerful overture, though it’s unclear why it was deemed necessary to revisit it.

The two subsequent tracks are amongst the album’s highlights, and neatly illustrate how Transcendence is an attempt to marry the intricate and chilled-out sides of Devin’s repertoire. “Stormbending” and “Failure” both pay tribute to classic prog rock, with the former’s dreamy yet powerful soundscapes recalling Pink Floyd and Dream Theater, and the latter’s odd time signatures and jarring guitar sound evoking King Crimson and Tool. Particular praise must be given to the guitar-playing on both tracks; the interplay between Devin and fellow guitarist Dave Young is superb.

The two other big highlights are the title track and “Offer Your Light”. “Transcendence” has a hypnotic mid-paced rhythm and tempo, and a catchy, chugging guitar riff very similar to much of Tool’s work, with a prominent vocal contribution by Dutch siren Anneke Van Giersbergen; recruiting her as a regular DTP guest was one of the smartest moves Devin Townsend ever made.  “Offer Your Light” meanwhile is the only out-and-out fast-paced rocker on the album, with Devin’s snarling screams and guitar intertwining sublimely with techno synths and Anneke’s vocals.

While these high points stand proudly alongside much of Devin Townsend’s other work, the rest of Transcendence is, well, a bit dull really. “Higher” features some top-quality metal riffs but they’re hidden somewhere in the middle of its 9.5 minute meandering duration. “From the Heart” and “Transdermal Celebration” (a cover of a song by Ween) show Devin at his most emotional but they outstay their welcome, both exceeding 8 minutes. And “Stars”, with its calm campfire-singalong atmosphere, sounds, for a lack of a better term, just a bit too nice; is this really the same guy who sung (i.e. screamed) “Oh My Fucking God” and “Satan’s Ice Cream Truck”? Ok, Devin’s come a long way since Strapping Young Lad, but the majority of his DTP work, despite being catchy and fairly commercial-sounding, has still been characterised by his trademark heaviness; that’s distinctly lacking on this album.

For fans who primarily like Devin Townsend for his crushing heaviness and kooky Canadian wackiness, they won’t find much to write home about on Transcendence. It is clearly one of his more thoughtful, introspective albums, and it does flow nicely from one track to another in a manner reminiscent of many classic prog rock albums, but it treads a fine line between being engaging and boring. He gets it right on several tracks, such as “Failure” and the title-track but, for the sake of balance, a few heavier, faster tracks wouldn’t have gone amiss. There’s no point fretting though; Devin will have another new album out in a few months’ time no doubt, hopefully that’ll offer something different.

Verdict: 7/10

P.S. Be sure to pick up the deluxe version with the bonus disc of demos; lots of heavy, kooky stuff on that (such as the excellent “Canucklehead”)

P.P.S. But avoid reading Devin’s pretentious track-by-track commentary in the lyrics booklet, unless you’ve recently been poisoned and urgently need to vomit

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Sabaton – The Last Stand

2016, Nuclear Blast

Swedish “warfare metal” troupe Sabaton are 10+ years and 8 albums into their career and, at first glance at least, it is baffling that their star is still in its ascendancy. The European power metal boom ended a decade ago and most of the other big-hitters have either fallen by the wayside or are playing to smaller, more selective crowds these days. Here in 2016, Sabaton are even bigger in the UK currently than home-grown warriors Dragonforce, and that’s without the endorsement of any guitar-based videogames! They’ve forged a stellar reputation based on (literally) explosive live shows and of albums full of fist-pumping anthems; thankfully, The Last Stand is more of the same and should please old and new fans alike.

Many of Sabaton’s albums have a concept of sorts and The Last Stand is no different. From the Battle of Thermopylae to World War 2, each track here details a famous military defence against seemingly insurmountable odds. This could be construed as a metaphor for Sabaton’s career; not many bands (least of all one that makes quite an unfashionable kind of music) can survive the loss of 4 founding members at once and come out the other side arguably even stronger.

The general feel and format of the album is fairly similar to its predecessor, 2014’s Heroes, in that it has a short running time (about 36 minutes) and only one of its 11 tracks is longer than 4 minutes. It’s a delivery that distinguishes Sabaton somewhat from many of their European melodic metal peers; they eschew drawn-out epics in favour of short, sharp assaults on the senses. This is no lo-fi punk rock record though; Sabaton’s trademark, layered and bombastic sound is as potent as ever here. Things kick off in cinematic fashion with “Sparta”, a track that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the soundtrack to 300. A militaristic keyboard fanfare sets the tone, complemented by pounding drums, crowd chanting and a steady fist-pumping rhythm. It’s the sort of thing that will generate much audience participation in a live setting; an ideal track to open both an album and a show.

Regular Sabaton listeners will notice that there’s a prevalence of keyboards to beef up the “wall of sound” on The Last Stand, which Heroes was lacking somewhat. This is most evident on “Blood of Bannockburn”, the track that’s perhaps most likely to become a permanent setlist fixture. Organ and bagpipes combine superbly with the impassioned, bellowing vocal delivery of singer Joakim Broden: “Join the Scottish Revolution/Freedom must be won by blood” could one day be as popular a Sabaton lyric as “Through the gates of hell/as we make our way to heaven”. It is one of a few songs on The Last Stand though that is arguably too short; less than 3 minutes in length, “Blood of Bannockburn” is over and done with all too soon (one of the few occasions where a more epic approach would have been better).

Sabaton are one of those bands whose increased popularity is arguably more as a result of their live shows than their recorded output. Luckily, just about every track on The Last Stand sounds like it was meant to be performed live. Rorke’s Drift is a fast, frantic number that expertly evokes its dramatic subject matter, the Zulu War. The title track is one where you find yourself singing along to both the vocals AND the guitars. Somewhat reminiscent of Avantasia’s “Sign of the Cross” (in terms of both its central riff and Catholic Church-themed lyrics), it has the kind of relentless rhythm that’ll get the crowds bouncing along. And “Shiroyama”, about the last stand of the Samurai, contains a perfect Dragonforce-esque Japanese video game melody, with another great singalong chorus. However, as with “Blood of Bannockburn”, it could do with being slightly longer.

This is not a perfect album but, quite frankly, that hardly matters. As long as Sabaton remain fun, energetic and, of course, educational, their fans won’t be disappointed.  The fact that some tracks on The Last Stand are perhaps too short or repetitive (“Last Dying Breath”, “The Lost Battalion”) hardly matters, as they all embody the power and enthusiasm that have served this band well for 8 albums and counting. They’re not reinventing the wheel nor really doing anything that they’ve not done countless times before but that’s not why people listen to this band. There’s an awful lot of history out there; if The Last Stand is anything to go by, Sabaton are still clearly more than up to the task of making it all come to life.

Verdict: 8/10

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Be’lakor – Vessels

2016, Napalm Records

The relentless globalisation of metal in recent years has thrown up plenty of surprises. Fertile scenes have sprung up in the remotest corners of the world, far removed from where you’d traditionally expect. So it is that Be’lakor, one of the most talked-about melodic death metal bands of recent years (largely thanks to their significant Facebook following), comes not from a typical location like Finland or Sweden, but from Australia. The Melbourne 5-piece, named after a Warhammer character, have built up a reputation over the past decade as a band who sound like metalcore never happened; they’re a breath of fresh air for fans who fondly reminisce about the Gothenburg scene’s glory days.

Vessels is Be’lakor’s 4th full-length album and first to be released on the acclaimed Austrian label, Napalm Records; such a move is bound to increase the band’s profile in Europe and beyond. The 8 tracks span 55 minutes, and are all fairly epic and progressive in terms of both sound and delivery. 2-minute opener “Luma” is a short, sharp introduction; chugging, discordant riffs build to a lush In Flames-esque melody to set the tone for the whole album. There’s a brief, crisp and engaging guitar solo before the song fades, somewhat abruptly. It could be a minute or 2 longer but it fulfils its essential purpose; it whets the listener’s appetite for what’s to come next.

“An Ember’s Arc”, the first full song, starts with a gentle acoustic section that is as melancholic as it is uplifting before chugging staccato riffs and clean, crisp lead guitar parts takeover. Frontman George Kosmas has a mighty set of pipes, with his death howl rising effectively above the band’s sonic onslaught. Moreover, there are several parts where traditional death metal elements intertwine with atmospheric keyboards and acoustic guitars to create an impressive progressive landscape not a million miles away from the work of Opeth. The album’s off to a solid start.

Vessels, overall, is an intense battle between light and dark, heavy and soft, and the next 2 tracks accomplish this most effectively. Just shy of 11 minutes, “Withering Strands” is the longest track and, in many ways, the album’s centrepiece. It’s a thoroughly energetic song with a brooding, repeating riff played as a duel between guitar and piano, with a thick, layered lead guitar melody that rivals Iron Maiden at their most epic. It cuts to an isolated piano melody 7 minutes in before chugging guitars build back up, leading to a frantic twin-guitar section that’s right out of the At the Gates playbook. The ending though is truly sublime; the bands gallops along in true “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” fashion, with dive-bomb runs along the fretboards of both guitar and bass, before the introductory riff repeats again and fades; it’s the sort of song that leaves you breathless.

“Roots to Sever” has a similar mood, though is comparatively brief at 7 minutes. A gentle chamber piano riff starts things off before the rest of the band crash in, powering along at breakneck speed a la Amon Amarth at their most ferocious. Keyboardist Steven Merry puts in a superb performance here, and throughout the album, as he expertly juxtaposes his piano with the savagery of his bandmates.

The next 3 tracks, whilst not bad, are unfortunately not quite in the same league as their predecessors. “Whelm” contains great doom elements, with the juxtaposition of piano and death howls illustrating an intense feeling of anguish but it is a key example of what happens when you try and fit too much into a song; there’s so much alternating between mid and fast paces, quiet and loud parts, that the whole thing’s quite unfocussed and haphazard. “A Thread Dissolves” is a 3-minute, largely instrumental, interlude that is well executed but unnecessary. And “Grasping Light” is a decent mid-paced number, with some good folk metal-inspired guitar melodies, but is otherwise fairly forgettable.

Thankfully, the closing track, “The Smoke of Many Fires”, ends the album on a high. At 9.5 minutes long, it’s a triumphant, fast epic. It’s probably the heaviest song on the album too, with several riffs and atmospheric elements recalling the title-track from Opeth’s Blackwater Park. A beautiful mellow section then starts about 7 minutes in, which leads the song, and the album as a whole, to a truly satisfying finish.

Overall, Vessels is an album of 2 halves: there are 4 great tracks, 1 good one, and another 3 that are just ok. The album’s highlights, “Withering Strands”, “Roots to Sever” and “The Smoke of Many Fires”, are amongst the best songs I’ve heard all year and many melodic death metal fans will truly treasure them. However, it is undeniably the case that Be’lakor’s sound is HIGHLY derivative (essentially a mix of Amon Amarth, early In Flames, and Opeth), which might go some way towards explaining Vessels’ inconsistency. There’s not much here that’s not been done countless times before and, particularly if you’re a seasoned fan of this kind of music, you will inevitably find parts of it quite boring and uninspired. However, as is evidenced by the 3 tracks mentioned above, the members of Be’lakor clearly have the musical and compositional skills to be successful. Hopefully in future, with the new backing of a larger label, they will consolidate their creativity, forge a unique identity, and deliver works of greatness.

Verdict: 8/10

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Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Genting Arena, Birmingham, 25/06/16

When Ritchie Blackmore announced he was forming a new incarnation of Rainbow for 3 shows, his first hard rock performances for over 20 years, he admitted it was primarily for the fans’ benefit; while he’s made a happy career out of playing Rennaissance-folk rock with his wife Candice Night in Blackmore’s Night, his status as a rock legend is primarily based on his genre-defining work as a founding member of both Deep Purple and Rainbow. Fans have come to Birmingham tonight from all over the world though (the other 2 shows last week were both in Germany), so this can’t afford to be just another tired nostalgia show.

Consisting of Jens Johansson (Yngwie Malmsteen/Stratovarius) on keyboards, David Keith and Bob Nouveau (both of Blackmore’s Night) on drums and bass respectively, and relative unknown Ronnie Romero (originally from Chile, he fronts the Spanish band Lords of Black) on lead vocals, this incarnation displays a chemistry that you’d expect of musicians who’ve been together for years, rather than for just a handful of shows. They position themselves compactly on stage (a la the cover of Deep Purple’s seminal live album Made in Japan) and no one moves around much throughout the show; now aged 71, Ritchie Blackmore opts to perform far less Pete Townshend-esque acrobatics than he did in his earlier days! This hardly matters though, nor does the lack of video screens; the 5 men on stage (plus 2 female backing singers, including Candice Night) might look like dots from the back of the cavernous Genting Arena but the classic Rainbow arch lighting rig, a much welcomed nod to previous Rainbow shows, provides an impressive visual spectacle nonetheless.

While it’s no doubt an obvious move for promotional/marketing reasons, a look at tonight’s setlist (see below) does make you wonder why the “Rainbow” name was chosen for the band; Deep Purple songs outnumber those by Blackmore’s other band. It does mean that those fans who were expecting more of their favourite Rainbow songs (there are plenty of calls for “Kill the King” from Long Live Rock & Roll for instance) might be somewhat disappointed. In practice though, songs by both bands are perfectly performed and enthusiastically received, with seemingly every single one of the 10,000-plus fans here tonight in fine voice; Ronnie Romero doesn’t even need to bother singing much of “Child in Time” at all, as he is thoroughly drowned out in what is undoubtedly one of the most memorable live music moments I’ve ever experienced. The bits where the crowd does his job for him aside though, Romero’s performance tonight must be singled out for particular praise. He has the task of handling the work of 5 respected, but very different, singers but luckily he has the vocal range and stamina to pull it off with ease. Whether it’s David Coverdale-style chest-bursting on “Burn” or soulful Ronnie James Dio-esque crooning on “Catch the Rainbow”, Ronnie Romero’s rich tenor voice is well-suited to the task. Ritchie Blackmore said that, when he announced Romero as Rainbow’s latest singer, he hoped he could introduce a new star to the world; based on tonight’s performance, he’s done just that.

I only really have a couple of small pieces of criticism to make about this show. Blackmore only ever intended to form this incarnation of Rainbow for these 3 shows; this is not a well-oiled production and that does show in places. While the sound quality in the Genting Arena is excellent, Blackmore’s guitar does not come through clearly at times; maybe decades of concentrating on acoustic, rather than electric, music has something to do with this? Moreover, while the band manages to cram a lot into 2 hours tonight, they could have trimmed a bit of time off the title track from Difficult to Cure (the instrumental one that’s essentially a rock version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”). If the solo section in the middle was a bit shorter, they could have found space for another song or two. But hey, tonight’s all about reliving the glory days of 70s and 80s arena rock; if you can’t have a gratuitous instrumental section, what’s the bloody point!?

As the end notes of “Smoke on the Water” are still ringing throughout the arena, I doubt anyone’s left tonight with any real disappointment. We came to see one of rock’s greatest musicians and most enigmatic characters play timeless songs to loyal fans, and no one can say that neither Ritchie Blackmore nor the rest of the band failed to deliver. It remains to be seen whether more shows (or maybe a new album?) will follow tonight but the signs are promising if they do. The rainbow has risen again, shining as bright as ever.

Verdict: 9/10

Setlist

  1. Over the Rainbow
  2. Highway Star
  3. Spotlight Kid
  4. Mistreated
  5. Since You Been Gone
  6. Man on the Silver Mountain
  7. Soldier of Fortune
  8. Difficult to Cure (with Drum, Bass and Keyboard solos)
  9. Catch the Rainbow
  10. Perfect Strangers
  11. Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll
  12. Child in Time
  13. Stargazer
  14. Black Night (with Woman From Tokyo excerpt)

Encore

  1. Burn
  2. Smoke on the Water

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Volbeat – Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie

2016, Vertigo

First things first, Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie is definitely the best album title I’ve heard so far this year. It neatly encapsulates Volbeat’s upbeat attitude and general modus operandi; these Danes have spent over a decade fusing together the best bits of old school rock ‘n’ roll and European metal into a loud but accessible sound that leaves their listeners thoroughly unable to sit still.

Seal the Deal… is Volbeat’s 6th studio album and sees them at the cusp of superstardom. They’ve long been chart-toppers and festival-headliners in their native Denmark and other European territories, but it’s only in the past few years that they’ve become anywhere near that popular in the UK or USA too. It is plainly clear from listening to Seal the Deal… that Volbeat are attempting to appeal to a mainstream rock audience here, though it’s less clear whether this album will adequately cater to many long-term fans’ tastes…

A big part of Volbeat’s appeal is their ability to simultaneously be punishingly heavy and infectiously catchy; it’s a formula that’s generally pleased die-hard metal fans and mainstream rockers in equal measure thus far. What makes Seal the Deal… something of a let-down compared to previous albums though is that they’ve not quite got the balance right this time around. Many of the 13 tracks here just don’t have the same grit, bite and groove that characterise many of Volbeat’s most popular tunes. Tracks like “Let it Burn” and “Mary Jane Kelly” are fairly forgettable attempts at pop-punk accessibility; it’s hard to believe they were written by the same band that made “Mr & Mrs Ness” and “Hallelujah Goat”! A cover of “Rebound”, originally by US pop-punk band Teenage Bottlerocket, is also a mistake as it is so incongruous compared to Volbeat’s usual style. In all fairness though, this lighter approach does work in places: “Black Rose” is suitably catchy with an effective guest spot from Canadian garage rocker Danko Jones; he and Michael Poulsen intertwine nicely to create a decent slab of modern punk rock.

There are thankfully several other tracks though that are more the sort of fare one would expect from Volbeat. Opening track and lead single, “The Devil’s Bleeding Crown” may be quite simplistic musically, but it has the makings of a standard, catchy Volbeat anthem, with its call-and-response vocal and guitar interplay bearing a passing resemblance to Nickelback’s “Burn it to the Ground”. “The Gates of Babylon” is not a Rainbow cover, though there are definitely hints of Ritchie Blackmore in the guitar melodies; it’s probably the most technical song on the album, with its mythological lyrics making it seem like a more upbeat version of Iron Maiden’s “Powerslave”. Other highlights include the Georgia Satellites cover “Battleship Chains”, which showcases Volbeat’s rockabilly influences with its catchy chorus and use of slide guitar, and the title track “Seal the Deal”, a great up-tempo hard-rocker with huge riffs and solos aplenty; it makes you wonder why there are so few great riffs throughout the rest of the album? The album thankfully ends on a strong, heavy note with “The Loa’s Crossroad”, which is bolstered by a great chorus and plenty of old school metal elements a la Metallica, Rainbow, etc.

On Seal the Deal & Let’s Boogie, we get to see both the light and heavy sides of Volbeat but the two elements do not dovetail together as effectively as they’ve often done in the past. On many tracks, mainstream rock and pop-punk elements are too prominent at the expense of more traditional hard rock and metal parts, which will inevitably displease many long-term fans. Moreover, several throwaway filler tracks make this album seem somewhat longer than its 52 minutes.

Nevertheless, the quality of many tracks here and the general competency of the band’s playing stop this from being a bad album. Volbeat could potentially usurp Foo Fighters’ crown as the world’s premier mainstream rock band but more consistent songwriting, as well as maintaining their signature sound, will be required in future in order to comprehensively please old and new fans alike.

Verdict: 7/10

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Vektor – Terminal Redux

2016, Earache Records

Thrash metal has gone in and out of fashion several times over the past 35 or so years, but its adherents consistently remain amongst the most devoted fans of any metal subgenre. Nevertheless, it’s damn near impossible to do anything innovative or original in a genre that is generally defined by quite a narrow and specific set of rules and regulations; new bands are often chastised for being too derivative on one hand, or too experimental and too far from thrash’s roots on the other. Vektor, however, have done a lot in the 14 years since their formation to suggest that they may have found the right balance to move thrash forward in an exciting direction.

Due to a trans-continental relocation from Phoenix, Arizona to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and years of relentless touring, Terminal Redux, Vektor’s 3rd full-length effort and first with new label Earache, comes 5 years after their 2nd album. At 73 minutes in length, with songs ranging from 5 to 13 minutes long, it’s a complex and thoughtful effort that is clearly the work of a band who relentlessly live and breathe all things metal. Vektor’s biggest influence is Canadian legends Voivod, which is unashamedly evident from the technical riffs and sci-fi lyrics (they describe themselves as “space metal” on their Facebook page) right down to the angular logo which is very, VERY similar to Voivod’s. This is no tribute act though, as throughout Terminal Redux, Vektor show that they’ve been influenced by bands from across the extreme and progressive spectra; you can hear elements of Atheist, Coroner, Kreator, Death, Rush, Dream Theater, Devin Townsend, Opeth and Immortal to name a few.

Most of the tracks here are characterised by breakneck speed and dizzying technicality, all complemented by frontman David DiSanto’s excellent high-pitched howl (basically what the xenomorphs from the Alien films would sing like if they were into metal…). 9-minute opener “Charging the Void” explodes into life with fast and mid-paced sections intertwining perfectly; there are plenty of proggy bits a la Rush and Yes which augment, rather than diminish, the ferocity and an unorthodox mix of chanting and blastbeats bring the song to a climactic finish. Other highlights include “LCD (Liquid Crystal Disease)”, with its tapped intro that reinforces the sci-fi/space theme well and “Angel of Death”-style breakdown, and “Ultimate Artificer” which, at a relatively short 5 minutes, shows that Vektor can write shorter, snappier songs as well as more epic stuff; this particular track plays like a more frantic Children of Bodom.

The best two tracks on Terminal Redux though are undoubtedly the closing pair. “Collapse” is primarily a ballad, but don’t let that put you off. Clean and harsh elements blend perfectly a la Devin Townsend or Opeth, making this a triumphant number that will surely go down brilliantly in a live setting. 13-minute closer “Recharging the Void”, as its title suggests, brings proceedings to a circular, satisfying close; its clean mid-section with haunting female vocals is particularly impressive. However, the quality of these two closing songs means that they do overshadow the rest of the album somewhat.

Apart from the throwaway interlude “Mountains Above the Sun”, there is nothing lacklustre about Terminal Redux. But “Collapse” and “Recharging the Void” are of such a higher quality than everything else here that the album as a whole is distinctly inconsistent. Vektor’s talent and ambition are clearly evident throughout, but greater diversity in songwriting would make this a great, rather than good, album. While there’s plenty to like in “Pteropticon”, “Psychotropia” and “Pillars of Sand”, they repetitively borrow plenty of elements from other songs, with the effect being that the album as a whole drags a bit.

Vektor are one of the most exciting thrash metal bands to emerge in years, and Terminal Redux is, in many ways, a solid statement of their abilities. But it also shows that they are not the finished article. Certain tracks on here indicate that they potentially have a masterpiece or two in them if they can only control and focus their creativity. If Vektor can replicate the diversity and ingenuity of these tracks across the duration of an entire album, they will then have the material that truly reflects their ambition. Watch this space, as this band has the potential to travel to infinity and beyond.

Verdict: 8/10

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Ravenia – Beyond the Walls of Death

2016, Nuclear Blast

Apart from the genre-transcending big names like Nightwish and Within Temptation, symphonic metal isn’t something that’s been a major concern for many metalheads for quite some time. Finnish newbies Ravenia aim to change that though and, on the face of it at least, they appear to be serious contenders. With live classical musicians as members, rather than relying on synthesised strings, and a pledge to make the perfect fusion between metal and film score music, they have plenty of positive attributes that could see them as the ones to revive this virtually forgotten-about metal sub-genre.

However, it doesn’t take long to realise that this debut album is anything but the start of a successful renaissance. If you’re going to call your album Beyond the Walls of Death you need to, bluntly speaking, give it some welly! There is no “oomph”, “bombast” or anything else that often makes symphonic metal such an enthralling kind of music. For starters, the mix is all wrong. The vocals of Armi Paivinen are admittedly sublime and they do compliment the strings well throughout, but these elements are so overtly dominant in the mix as to render the guitars and drums essentially redundant; “weak” and “tinny” are words that frequently come to mind throughout the album’s duration.

As well as getting the mix wrong, if you’re going to make a “perfect” blend of symphonic and metal music, you actually need to be able to play your instruments properly. Ravenia’s guitars and drums are SOOOOOO formulaic and uninspired it hurts; like a 5th-rate nu-metal band, without even the faintest whiff of a solo or anything else that requires musical dexterity. Anyone who doesn’t find this all mind-numbingly boring should be studied by scientists in order to help develop a new form of alertness medication; you need to be superhuman in order to withstand this snooze-fest…

Symphonic metal is a hard genre to get right, due to the intricate blending of seemingly disparate elements that it requires. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for getting it as utterly WRONG as Ravenia do here. I am shocked that such a prestigious and respected label as Nuclear Blast has given them a chance to be honest. Maybe they’ve seen some promise that might be realised on future releases; it’s because of the band’s relative inexperience that my review score for this album isn’t even lower. But if Beyond the Walls of Death is actually the best that Ravenia can do, they will sadly be cast aside very quickly.

Verdict: 3/10

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Deftones – Gore

2016, Reprise

Deftones are undoubtedly one of the most enduring success stories of the mid to late-90s nu-metal explosion; the Sacramento, CA, 5-piece are arguably as popular now as they’ve ever been. It’s not been an easy ride though, with delayed album releases, personal problems and of course the tragic coma and death of founding bass player Chi Cheng making things particularly tough in recent years.

While preceding albums Diamond Eyes and Koi No Yokan retained much of the excitement and dynamism from the earlier releases that made Deftones such a big name, 8th album Gore is unfortunately nowhere near as engaging. Creative differences and disagreements within the Deftones camp about the direction of the music on Gore had been widely reported leading up to its release, with guitarist Stephen Carpenter apparently being particularly displeased with several aspects of the album. Having given Gore a few listens now, I can sadly say that he’s not the only one.

Credit where credit’s due though, there are plenty of positive elements on Gore that can stand proudly alongside much of Deftones’ earlier work. “Doomed User” conjures up memories of Grammy-winning “Elite” from White Pony, with a punchy post-thrash riff that will work well live. At the other end of Deftones’ musical palate, “(L)Mirl” is a great example of the shoegaze/post-rock side of their sound, with lush, evocative guitar melodies blending well with the vocals; if nothing else, Chino Moreno’s still got it. The album also ends pretty well with the one-two punch of “Phantom Bride” and “Rubicon”. Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell pops up to deliver a great guitar solo that dovetails well with a good, atmospheric chorus on the former, while the latter hearkens back to the heyday of nu-metal, when Deftones built a strong reputation of blending intricate, thoughtful melodies with the genre’s more standard elements.

These few tracks aside, there’s not a great deal to write home about elsewhere on the album. “Hearts/Wires” is an introspective number, but lacks any kind of hook to sustain the listener’s attention, whereas “Pittura Infamante” contains a distinctly uninspiring, droning riff; this is where Stephen Carpenter’s alleged boredom and dissatisfaction is most painfully apparent. Elsewhere, we have various shades of atmospheric post-rock, industrial and nu-metal elements with the occasional positive moment (“Geometric Headdress” has an alright chorus melody, and the title-track has a good heavy riff), but the overwhelming feeling, I’m afraid, is that this is a very DULL album. Occasional good moments do not a good album make; there just aren’t enough ideas here to sustain an entire album.

I’m someone who’s enjoyed much of Deftones’ earlier work, so this is not an attack on their general style; it doesn’t bother me that they’re arguably more introspective and less in-your-face than several other bands of their generation. But they have done much, MUCH better than Gore in the past. Hopefully, by the time Deftones come to record their next album, the creative differences they suffered here will have dissipated and they’ll be back to doing what they do best. Regrettably, Gore is a generally forgettable album that is far from essential listening; NOT recommended if you’re new to Deftones.

Verdict: 5.5/10

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