Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Sword's Gods of the Earth CD review

When the Sword emerged in 2006, no one quite knew how to take the Austin-based quartet. Four guys in their mid-20s who sang about wizards and warlocks like they were the little cousins of Ronnie James Dio?!

Now the Sword are back with their second album, Gods of the Earth, and it's something of a retro-metal manifesto. Black Sabbath may be the obvious influence here, but the Sword's style is equally indebted to mid-'80s thrash metal. "The Sundering" and "The White Sea" are built around the kind of staccato, palm-muted riffing popularized by Metallica, Megadeth and others.

Singer/guitarist John D. Cronise and guitarist Kyle Shutt make a formidable axe-wielding duo. Both musicians bring some of the virtuosity that defined the venerable guitar tag-teams of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden into the netherworld of doom metal. Drummer Trivett Wingo, meanwhile, makes it a trifecta. His commanding, punked-out performance recalls monolithic '70s kingpin John Bonham (symphonic gongs, anyone?), while bassist Bryan Richie stays buried in the mix.

If you're looking for a literary equivalent, Gods of the Earth could be the soundtrack for the fearsome black riders in The Lord of the Rings—all galloping thrash-metal riffs accompanied by strangulated, off-key vocals. To the believers, this album will be hailed as the second coming of NWOBHM-inspired thrash/doom. The nay-sayers, meanwhile, will look at titles like "How Heavy This Axe" or "Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians" and know this band may be teetering on the edge of Spinal Tap territory. To each his own…

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lehigh Valley Rocks! The Best of 1984-1994 CD review

If famed musicologist Alan Lomax were reincarnated as an '80s metal aficciando, he might compile a release of field recordings like Lehigh Valley Rocks! The Best of 1984-1994. This two-disc compilation captures in loving detail the sounds of 27 bands from an almost forgotten frontier of the spandex nation.

Is it really any surprise that Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley -- a blue-collar region long synonymous with steel production -- birthed a raucous cast of independent heavy metal and hard rock groups throughout the '80s and early '90s? While nearby Philadelphia spawned gold and platinum acts like Britny Fox and Cinderella, this neglected corner of the Keystone State gave rise to "could've beens" such as Shok Graffiti, Sweet Tequila and Vicious Barreka.

Disc one offers a parade of bands that might have easily enjoyed airplay and MTV support in their era. From the saccharine strains of Omynus' "Don't Ever Say Goodbye" to the lusty bravado of Teeze's "Party Hardy," Lehigh Valley Rocks! shows that unsigned hair metal is just as good as the corporate stuff. Elsewhere, Sweet Tequila take a salty romp through Black Crowes-inspired territory on "I Won't Be Crying" and Idle Threats ' "Find a Way" blends a galloping sound reminiscent of early Queensr├┐che with pop-friendly hooks. Washed's epic and nuanced "Guilty," meanwhile, treads experimental territory and proves that you don't have to be Ravi Shankar to rock a sitar.

Disc two digs even deeper into the underground to spotlight the Lehigh Valley scene's heavier side. Groups like Vicious Barreka and Leviathen unleash the primitive ferocity of thrash metal, while Atom West is a crossover act in the vein of D.R.I. or early Corrosion of Conformity. A welcome moment of demented comic relief comes in the form of Vic Missy's "Terror/Cartoon Lady." The tune's disjointed song structure and menacing soundscapes evoke the creepiness of Mike Patton's Mr. Bungle project.

The compilation's carefully researched liner notes -- featuring brief band bios/lineups, songwriting/publishing credits and the bands' current websites or MySpace pages -- also deserve kudos. Lomax would be proud.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mystery Bloom, Lifetime in the Heart CD review

New Jersey has proven time and again that it's always been a fertile ground for local talent. The now-defunct Mystery Bloom is the latest band of Garden State rockers to come to my attention. MB arose out of the ashes of N.J. club band Sinnocence and features three members from that long-gone outfit—guitarist Danny Roselle, bassist Nick Clemente and drummer Dave Garcia. Singer Ray Morales and guitarist Bob Gilmartin round out the MB lineup on Lifetime in the Heart, a reissue of the group's Frame of Mind debut.

The disc opens with the prog-metal stylings of "Frame of Mind," with strong Kansas-like group vocals and a vaguely Middle Eastern sounding guitar/keyboard riff. Vocals are, in fact, a big key to the MB sound. While Morales' voice has shades of late Badlands singer Ray Gillen, the entire group's dulcet throats drive songs such as "Life" and "Soulmate Serenade." The guys even hit a 4-part a capella harmony on "Paperback Writer," a cover of the Beatles' tune! In this respect, MB can be understood as a hard-rock band with real '60s and '70s pop roots; there's such an emphasis on harmony backing vocals in both the arrangement and execution of songs that you can almost hear echoes of legendary Motown vocal groups. Of course, the rock is never sacrificed on any of the tracks.

If MB has any fault, it's that their tunes make it almost too easy to pin down the musical reference points. "Adore" opens with an acoustic chord progression copped from Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed" before moving into a chorus that's reminiscent of Tesla's "Love Song." Meanwhile, "Life" sounds like it could have been an Enuff Z'Nuff outtake, with its Fab Four-like harmonies and gentle lyrical disposition. The disc only really falters on the Latin funk-rock jam "Pray Another Day," which at nearly 6 minutes is the longest track here. All in all, this is a solid effort with appreciable musicianship and a great knack for marrying prog-rock aspirations with pop tendencies.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Overkill's Immortalis CD review

Overkill has long been considered one of the second-tier talents of '80s thrash metal. While Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax got the lion's share of praise, Overkill typically flew under the radar. Yet the veteran band proves itself stronger and stronger with each new release; their 15th album, Immortalis, is no exception.

Opening with the one-two punch of "What It Takes" and "Devils in the Mist," Immortalis immediately roots itself with familiar sonic elements like the vicious snarl of frontman Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth and the sonically destructive bass rumblings of D.D. Verni. "Hell Is" shifts gears between slow, sludgy Black Sabbath-like passages and frenetic thrashing that has all the fury of an epileptic seizure. "Charlie Get Your Gun," meanwhile, is the disc's pinnacle of frenzy; guitarists Derek Tailer and Dave Linsk shred so dynamically that drummer Ron Lipnicki can barely keep up with their percussive, atonal attack. It's this kind of organized chaos that's at the heart of Overkill's sound.

The sole moment of mainstream concession comes during "Walk Through Fire," which features a driving AC/DC-like rhythm and sleek, streamlined production reminiscent of Metallica's Black Album. The sound puts this cut more in the hard rock category than the metal one. But after 50 minutes of skull-rattling din, you need a diversion like this!

Younger fans of metal will appreciate Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe's guest appearance on "Skull & Bones." Yes, Blythe's presence validates Overkill in the eyes of a new audience. But with the strength of Immortalis, Blitz & Co.'s talents are never even in question. Overkill's music never goes out of style because it was never in style…and that's just the way their fans like it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

One from the Archives

Editor's note: This interview I conducted with Joey Vera ran circa 2000 in a now-defunct music magazine called Smug.

Armored Saint saw it all in the '80s: Club gigs with bands like Metallica and W.A.S.P.; a slew of indie and major-label releases; and the death of guitarist Dave Prichard. In 1992 the band broke up, and alumni went on to Anthrax, Fates Warning, and DC 4. Now the Saint is back after an almost decade-long hiatus to resurrect metal with Revelation (Metal Blade). Bassist Joey Vera talks about the new album, Saint's cult status, and his penchant for African music.

With the recent glut of reunions in the heavy-metal world, what distinguishes yours?
This one is special because there's been this weird, underground mystique about the band since it broke up. What really helped the reunion along was that during the time that John [Bush, vocals] was touring with Anthrax, and myself with Fates Warning even, we were going to places we'd never been and meeting people we'd never met and there were a lot of questions about Armored Saint. A lot of people wanted the band to get back together. That played a big part in it. There was a lot of anticipation about it on an underground level.

Characterize the mood of the band these days.
The character of the band is really kind of simple: we missed being around each other and making this sort of music together. Our intention was to make a really brutal record with high-energy songs. We want to go out, play these songs live, and do what we did ten or 15 years ago. We're not overly concerned with selling records, it's more for the love of the music and the love of being in the band, almost like when we first started when we were 19.

You produced the album and also helped with engineering. What sort of production values were you going for?

Again, we were going with the simplicity aspect. I really wanted to make an old-school record. I wanted it very raw and very dry, without a lot of effects. It had to be dangerous sounding and had to have a lot of guitars. It just had to really tear your face off.

Your bass playing with AS had always been pretty traditional. On Revelation it's a little more funky. Has playing in FW changed your style much?
That contributed some, along with the past eight years. After Saint, I got involved with a lot of different things during the '90s. I played in several L.A. R&B and funk cover groups. I was also in an African band playing traditional African music, which included some reggae. That band was called Mixed Heritage and was a multi-ethnic eleven-piece. Pretty big band!

Explain ''No Me Digas," Revelation's limited-edition Spanish language bonus track.
The title literally means "Don't Tell Me," and lyrically it's really an abstract bunch of imagery. It's kind of about this part of your brain that conjures up evil, forbidden thoughts. The "Don't Tell Me" is the denial that you have in the logical side of your brain. It's about the push and pull of your psyche.