Your occasional source for heavy metal, progressive rock and hard rock coverage. Whenever I feel like it.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Album Review: The Triumphant (and Gloomy) Return of Alice In Chains

So the new Alice in Chains record is finally here, and the results are pretty decent. Considering that the Seattle four-piece had to overcome the death of lead singer Layne Staley, the fact that the album even exists could be construed (by some fans) as an insult to that talented, troubled vocalist. Happily, Black Gives Way to Blue (a record three years in the making) is the opposite. The album celebrates the memory of Layne and lays the foundation for a bright future.

Upon hearing opening cut "All Secrets Known", the de-tuned growl of Jerry Cantrell's guitar and the booming, moaning voice of new singer William DuVall means that Alice fans are back in wonder-land. Duvall, who toured with the three surviving members of the classic '90s grunge band (God that's a weird phrase--this reporter remembers the Facelift era when AIC were considered "metal") was the right hire.

Lead single "Check My Brain" has a catchy hook with an lyrical twist on Led Zeppelin's "Going to California" (or possibly LL Cool J's "Goin' Back to Cali.") "A Looking In View" recalls toe progressive second side of Dirt: it's a great Cantrell tune with a solid riff and memorable chorus. And like the best songs by this band, it's vaguely depressing.

Real gloom sets in on the second side of the album, with the crushing bass riff of "Acid Bubble" and the memorable groove of "Take Her Out." Bassist Mike IƱez shows why has been an integral part of this band's sound since Dirt and drummer Sean Kinney provides solid, heavy backbeat. Producer Nick Raskulnicecz (Rush's Snakes & Arrows) preserves the dark mood through the first ten cuts.

The sun peeks through (sort of) on the gorgeous title track. "Black Gives Way to Blue" closes the CD with a direct quotation of "Whale and Wasp" from the Jar of Flies EP. This song could have been on that classic EP: it is a slow, searching tune with Jerry Cantrell's distinctive guitar, a guest piano appearance from Sir Elton John, and William DuVall paying vocal tribute to his predecessor. Somewhere an AIC fan is headbanging to this new disc. Somewhere, Layne is smiling.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Beatles Remasters Pt. 4: Paul is Barefoot

Although Abbey Road was the second-to-last Beatles album released, the disc represents the Fab Four's final collaboration, the point where John, Paul. George and Ringo set their differences aside for one set of sessions and produced a masterpiece. The remastered version is a fitting climax to the new Beatles remaster series, and we're going to talk about it today.

Where the old CD issue had a compressed mix that made everything sound like guitars, the new brings all the keyboards are clear and to the fore of the mix. This is a good thing. The Beatles were experimenting with different instruments and textures at this point, and this new mastering brings those out into the front of the aural mix. You can finally hear the electric piano on "Come Together", the Moog synthesizer, which shows up on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer", and the Hammond organ solo on "I Want You (She's So Heavy). You can even hear the organ fills that John inserted underneath the verses of this song, which is even heavier in this iteration.

"Because" and the following medley is for me, the closing of the Beatles story. The electric harpsichord sounds really good here, not to mention the tiny synthesizer grace notes. And the triple-tracked vocals are gorgeous and lush--comparable to the a cappella version which opened Love.

"You Never Give Me Your Money" has also been cleaned up. It sounds like Paul playing up in the attic before joining the rest of the lads downstairs for the song's energetic middle section. Rich layers of organ and bass guitar wash over Ringo's slow-rolling drums in "Sun King", a 'light' song that now has an epic weight. In its new mix, the the fake Spanish/Italian/Liverpudlian words are clearer, though still nonsensical.

"Mean Mr. Mustard" snarls out of the speakers, and "Polythene Pam" (based on a real Beatles follower) is a slab of jagged guitar. "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" (another Beatles song based on a real incident, raises the energy level before the final triptych of "Golden Slumbers", "Carry That Weight" and "The End."

The short songs barrel forward with fresh momentum. The gorgeous orchestration of "Golden Slumbers" unfolds in new detail, and as the four Beatles launch into "Carry That Weight" it sounds like a raucous, drunken wake. The Ringo-dominated drum jam that kicks off "The End" rocks hard, and the guitars slice, slash and cut through the mix. The final, cascading vocal harmonies are a fitting close to the album, followed by that magnificent guitar chord and the final, 'accidental' coda of "Her Majesty."

If all that isn't enough for you Abbey Road lovers, click here to visit the famous pedestrian crossing webcam, and see what's going on on the spot where Paul walked barefoot.

He's not dead, you know. Neither are the Beatles.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Beatles Remasters Pt. 3: Paul is Very Clean

In our continuing series, we look at the remastered versions of Past Masters Vol. 2 and A Hard Day's Night.

The Beatles' third album is probably my favorite among their early records. This was their first album to be recorded on a four-track machine, so it's surprising that this remaster is the first proper stereo issue of the album.

What makes this particular remaster endearing is the depth and clarity of the master that brings out all the tiny little flaws in these magnificent songs. For example: Paul's audible inhale of air before the high note in the title track, or the warbling of harmonica reeds on "I Should Have Known Better." "If I Fell" has a full round dynamic range that only swells wider when the harmonies come in. And "Can't Buy Me Love" has an ebullient optimism and energy.

With a track listing that ranges from the chiming chords of "Day Tripper" to the contemplative finale of "Across the Universe" and "Let It Be", Past Masters Vol. 2 has always been an interesting collection. "Paperback Writer", "Lady Madonna" and "Rain" all sound fantastic, as does the epic "Hey Jude" and the raucous single version of "Revolution." This last track threatens to blow the speakers with the sound of John's call to arms.

The Get Back-era material is very strong here, especially "Don't Let Me Down" and "The Ballad of John and Yoko", a song that features John and Paul on all instruments. (It says something about Ringo's ability that his presence is sorely missed on this track.) Finally, "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)" may be the silliest song in the band's catalogue, but it sounds great here and ends the collection on a comic note.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Beatles Remasters Pt. 2: No-one Buried Paul

Next in our Beatles survey, we probe Rubber Soul and ride the Magical Mystery Tour.

Listening to the new master of Rubber Soul one is almost bewildered by the sheer amount of aural detail that is present in the mixes of these fourteen remarkable songs. The effect is almost like a Rembrandt where the blacks and browns are stripped away and fresh colors spring forth.

Whether it's the formerly buried piano part on "Drive My Car" t(which sounded like a badly recorded bass guitar on the old CD) to the maracas on "The Word", Rubber Soul finds the Beatles in experimental mode, taking their first steps toward a psychedelic future. "Michelle" sings with simple clarity in McCartney's vocals and searching baseline. In fact, one spin of that famous ballad may lead to a re-assessment of Macca's bass-playing skills--he's pretty formidable!

From the first cries of "Roll up!", Magical Mystery Tour breathes with energy and psychedelic power. This opening cut is the sound of what never happened: Sgt. Pepper's on the road. The flutes on "Fool on the Hill" dance ad pirouette with the brass figures, each sound writ in large, bold colors. "Blue Jay Way" is even more weird and spectral, if that were possible. As for "I Am the Walrus", all the hidden messages and buried whispers are presented with the utmost clarity for the purposes of contemplating just what the hell a "crabalocker fishwife" is.

The collection of songs on the second half of Mystery Tour features a whole wealth of aural detail, from the hidden messages in "Hello Goodbye" to the rich textures of the orchestra-meets-rock-band tape experiment that we call "Strawberry Fields Forever." John almost seems overwhelmed by the amount of orchestral detail present on the song, and the touch of pushing the horns all the way to the upper right of the stereo mix works beautifully. Oh and by the way, trainspotters, John clearly says "cranberry sauce" on the fade-out.

"Baby You're a Rich Man" is cleaned up beautifully, bringing out the clavioline solo, an early synthesizer. Here it sounds remarkably like a shehnai, or Indian oboe. Finally, the self-reverential and irreverent "All You Need Is Love" is the logical successor to "Strawberry Fields" as rock band and orchestra come together once more in a rich parade led by Ringo's drums and the skillful arrangement for brass and strings.

The Beatles Remasters Pt. 1: Paul is Not Dead

The Beatles during the Help! sessions.

Paul is not dead. He is most definitely brought back to life on the new stereo remasters of the Beatles albums. I listened to Help! and Sgt. Pepper's and here's my first impressions...

OK. These sound REALLY good--a hell of a lot better than the tinny 1987 CD releases.
Both albums boast a vastly increased dynamic range--the stereo is so good and clear that it actually sounds like the Beatles have dropped into your living room for a quick gig and a cuppa, with Paul's "very clean" grandfather sitting on the couch.

Sir Paul's bass is pushed to the forefront on "Help!" where you can finally hear the complex lines that inspired the likes of Chris Squire and Geddy Lee. Other little details, like the sound of fingers moving and clacking the strings during "Yesterday" or Ringo's bongo fury during "Tell Me What You See" provide considerable pleasure and surprise--these things were completely inaudible on the old CDs.

The new mastering reveals Pepper in all its sonic glory. Tiny acoustic details come to the fore, but not at the expense of the overall sonic experience. From the cocktail chatter of the opening to the highly serious arrangement of "She's Leaving Home" and the circus whimsy of "Mr. Kite". The tabla player is in the room with you during "Within You Without You."

The music-hall turn "When I'm Sixty-Four" has a slight aural "varnish" to it--another effect that was not distinguishable on the old CD version. It really sounds like an old recording from the war years slipped into the middle of all the psychedelia. And "Lovely Rita" with its gorgeous opening vocal melody, erratic trombone woofs and clanking drums seems to leap right out of the speakers and onto the Meter Maid's couch.

Throughout the disc. the Beatles' voices sound further back in the four-track mix, giving the illusion of depth and breadth. Compared to Help!, the effect is that of a larger canvas, which is precisely what they were trying to do. "Good Morning Good Morning" (complete with barnyard sound effects) is no longer shrill and annoying as it was on the 1987 master. As for "A Day in the Life", the Lennon-McCartney masterpiece is overwhelming, from its giant orchestral wash-over chords to Ringo's slowed-down drums. Simply magnificent.

Each CD comes in an attractive DigiPack with cleaned-up artwork and reproductions of the original booklet. I decided against the big box set, but these remasters are essentally the same thing as the Beatles Stereo Box.

Concert Review: Porcupine Tree--The Incident at Terminal 5

The first North American leg of Porcupine Tree's tour for their newly-released The Incident came to New York on Sept. 24. The veteran British psychedelic progressive band played two sets, featuring a complete performance of Disc 1 of their new record. The second set featured a cornucopia of Tree classics, including songs from Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia with the odd detour into other recent albums.

Steven Wilson and company were in fine form, alternating between echoing power chords, crunching sheets of metallic guitar and delicate, almost porcelain textures played on piano and keyboards. Steven Wilson alternated instruments throughout the set, aided by touring guitarist John Wesley and keyboardist Richard Barbieri. Bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Gavin Harrison are the band's greatest weapon, a prog rhythm section that can actually swing.

At 55 minutes long, "The Incident" (the song, that is) is the largest work that Tree have ever put out. It is a song cycle dealing with a series of stories taken from contemporary news reports, boiled down to their raw emotional content. By turns critical, confessional and deeply personal, it is a work of staggering power. Yet the songs themselves are accessible, particularly the 11-minute "Time Flies" and the heartbreaking finale, "I Drive the Hearse."

The band also played "Remember Me Lover", the final song on the second disc of The Incident. Afterward, Wilson commented "That's only the second time we've played that one." Other highlights included "The Start of Something Beautiful", half of "Anesthetize" and a teeth-rattling "Strip the Soul". The whole show was accompanied by a dizzying display of visuals and experimental films by band collaborator Lasse Hoile. His surreal, scratched, disturbing images are becoming as much a part of the band's visual identity as Wilson's spectacles and bare feet.

Show openers Kings X (who almost deserve a post all to their own) played a strong set, featuring deep cuts from the band's vast back catalogue ("What Is This?" "Lost In Germany"), a couple of classic tunes ("Over My Head", stretched to a ten minute jam complete with dizzying guitar solo and a sermon from dUg Pinnick) and cuts from the band's new platter XV. As always with this veteran Texan power trio, they leave you spiritually refreshed and wanting more of their signature sound.
Porcupine Tree. Photo © Lasse Hoile.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Incident Has Landed

The other day I'm home minding my own business--OK I was listening to Dream Theater--and the mailman arrived with a large, heavy package. Opening it, I discovered my Special Edition copy of the new Porcupine Tree opus, The Incident.

First of all, it's frickin' huge. The box is the size of an old-fashioned classical LP box, with the CDs in the covers of a heavy cardboard book which has full glossy pages of artwork and photographs. The whole is in a gray slipcase with the words "Porcupine Tree: The Incident" blown up to enormous size.

Second, the music. I haven't had time to digest the whole record yet, but this is another fine PT concept piece in the same vein as Deadwing and Fear of a Blank Planet. Steven Wilson's concept was to examine news incidents that he saw on TV, from the perspective of the people experiencing those events, delving beneath the surface reporting into the real emotional depths.

If that sounds off-putting, consider this fine record as a solid collection of songs, with memorable choruses, hummable hooks, and many tributes to prog-rock godfathers Rush, Genesis and Marillion.

Full review as soon as I'm done listening to it but…damn.

Is that Tony Perkins on the cover?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Album Re-Assessment: Dream Theater--Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence

Dream Theater's sixth album, released in the uncertain winter of 2002, is nothing less than a progressive metal masterpiece. A two disc set with six songs (including the eight-part title track on the second disc), 6DoIT (as it is informally known) shows the band working on its largest canvas to date.
The first disc kicks off with "The Glass Prison", a heavy two-part track that opens drummer Mike Portnoy's "Twelve Steps Suite". The story of the percussionist's struggle with alcoholism, this complex, fast track weaves a power metal groove with the band's usual instrumental wizardry. The influence of Pantera and Nine Inch Nails can be heard here, especially in the fast sections. (The "Twelve Step Suite" would continue on the next four DT records, ending with "The Shattered Fortress" on this year's Black Clouds and Siver Linings.)

Another highlight is the gentle, slow-burning "Misunderstood", with a tremendous vocal performance by James LaBrie. "The Great Debate" features John Myung's bass wizardry, and "Disappear" is the kind of moody, multi-layered track that is made possible by the presence of Jordan Rudess on keyboards.

The first disc would be impressive as a stand-alone album. But this is just the appetizer for the eight-part title track that encompasses six different mental disorders, explored from the point of view of seven different characters. From the brain-numbing thrash of "The Test That Stumped Them All" to the soaring, acoustic "Solitary Shell", this is the ideal blend of progressive and metal that has come to define Dream Theater.

On a personal note, I saw the World Tourbulence tour twice (four times if you count the summer jaunt in '03) but never really sat down and LISTENED to the whole record in all the years that it's sat on my shelf. Maybe it was depression, maybe it was too soon for me after 9/11, but lately I have found this album to be a personal comfort as well as a majestic piece of music.
If you don't have it, go forth and git' it!

Friday, September 11, 2009

My 9/11 playlist

Songs listened to on the morning of 9/11/01:

  1. "Painkiller" by Judas Priest
  2. "Don't Tread on Me" by Metallica
  3. "Holy Wars (The Punishment Due)" by Megadeth
  4. "Peace Sells" by Megadeth
  5. "War Ensemble" by Slayer

And all of the DVD of Metropolis 2000: Live Scenes from New York. Yes, I have the version with the flaming apple graphic--which was released on 9/11. A strange coincidence, as the band decided to combine the NY skyline with their trademark "burning sacred heart" image that they have used ever since "Images and Words."

Although the album cover was changed, the DVD still has the graphic on its menus.

More Acoustic Goodness

Dutch progressive symphonic metal band Within Temptation have a new all-acoustic live record An Acoustic Night At The Theatre coming out at the end of October. The record will include one new track, "Utopia", which is about to be released as a single.

The album will be released Oct. 30 in Europe, and Nov. 2 for the rest of the world. The band will embark on a tour of Holland and Belgium early next year, before they record a new studio album.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Marillion Unplugged...again.

British progressive rock veterans Marillion have been busy with a new all-acoustic studio record called "Less is More" (or as the band is marketing it, "L>M"). The band has done the unplugged thing several times, most memorably in 2005 when they toured as an acoustic three-piece "Los Trios Marillos". That was the last time this writer saw them, at the Bowery Ballroom.

The track list:
Interior Lulu
Out of This World
Wrapped Up In Time
The Space
Hard As Love
If My Heart Were a Ball (it would roll uphill)
It's Not Your Fault
Memory of Water
This is the 21st Century
a Hidden Track.

Pre-orders are now available on the band's official site, and the first track, a re-working of 1993's "Hard as Love" is available on the band's official MySpace page. The album will be released Oct. 2 with another European tour to follow. As of this writing, no U.S. dates are planned.