Reviews

Armored Saint - Win Hands Down

METAL BLADE RECORDS 2015

After 1991's Symbol of Salvation, Armored Saint has typically made an album every 5-to-10 years. The Angelenos seem to slip off hard rock's radar, then after a new release, fans become smitten once again. For those who have wondered if the band's new record has been worth the wait, Win Hands Down will render them utterly rocked.

Armored Saint has blazed an adventurous trajectory in songwriting—marrying social consciousness with heavy metal. "Mess" unsheathes the blade, making it apparent that the five years since La Raza served as a gestation period for the band to hone its craft—not to grow soft. The haunting, thought-firing missive "Muscle Memory" is singer John Bush's affront to complacency and taking the path of least resistance, while "An Exercise in Debauchery" addresses the ills of pornography.

Bassist Joey Vera's unprecedented instrumentation in all of the compositions is mind-blowing, complimenting John Bush's top-notch vocals. The arresting drum work from Gonzo Sandoval and the Phil Sandoval/Jeff Duncan guitar solos also perfectly permeate the tracks.

Towards the disc's end, the slow, orchestral "Dive" is immaculate and pensive, yet somehow sits well amid all the heavies on the album. Plain and simple, Win Hands Down has won big - this one is the group's magnum opus!



Charlie Steffens


   

Cannibal Corpse - A Skeletal Domain

Metal Blade Records 2014

Cannibal Corpse—they’ve been cranking out CANNIBALISTIC death metal for longer than some of you probably have been alive. A Skeletal Domain is their thirteenth studio album and all the fans of the band know what they are in store.

A Skeletal Domain isn’t anything different under the blood-drenched sun. It’s the band doing what they do best. From album opener “High Velocity Impact Splatter” to maniacal ender, “Hollowed Bodie,” we’re treated to mental images of zombie decapitations, corpse mutilation and merciless bludgeonings. The production (courtesy Audiohammer Studios) is about the only major change from the last couple of albums. The sound here is crisp and allows each instrument to shine at just the right time.

As far as the songs go, they are all performed well, but as with every album, a few stand out more than others. “Sadistic Embodiment” is a squelching, ferocious aural assault that never lets up off the accelerator as Cannibal Corpse tear through your lifeless shell with malevolence. The title track is a powerful beast with plenty of tempo shifts to keep you thoroughly entertained. For those looking to have their asses handed to them, check out the unrelenting “Bloodstained Cement.”

A Skeletal Domain is another notch that Cannibal Corpse can add to their long career, or at least the nearest severed, rotting femur that they can find close by. It’s not new or revolutionary, but it is the band kicking the collective asses of their fans once again.

HMC


   

Freedom Call - 666 Weeks Beyond Eternity

Steamhammer - SPV 2015

Nurnberg’s Freedom Call come to us this year with a double-disc compilation of ‘Happy Metal’.  They first came to general musical knowledge in 1999 with their first LP.  Under band interests they want us to “enjoy our lives”.  Fair enough.  This collection is chock full of tracks that some of you may not have heard before.  It should be noted that this is actually a re-release of the band’s ‘masterpiece’ from 2002.  Plus, there are ‘special’ versions, unplugged versions, live versions — oftentimes of the same songs that are already on offer.  For better or worse, let us revisit some of these choice nuggets.  But before we go any further, it may behoove us to go through the personnel.  Freedom Call are Chris Bay (vocals, guitar), Lars Rettkowitz (guitar, backing vocals), Ilker Ersin (bass, backing vocals) and Ramy Ali (drums, backing vocals).  They are currently touring Europe and will undoubtedly be presents at many of the summer’s headbanging fests.

First up is the title track, which comes to life with chanting monks on vocals, and soon develops into a lesson in pounding the crap out of the double-bass drums.  There is chugging riffage and high-in-the-sky viking-style vocals.  At the two-and-a-half minute mark there is more chanting and progginess mixed with Metal.  At three minutes in there is a shredding lead guitar solo.  Now all of this stuff is fine, even great, at times; however, as we will see (and hear), FC grind this formula into the very ground during the next hour or so.  It is unfortunate because what variety we do bear witness to actually turns out to be the highlights of this collection.

Metal Invasion (Live 2011) is one of three versions of this track.  Of course, as any unsuspecting scribe might wonder, we find ourselves asking why?  This IS a good song; it is a classic example of the sub-genre of Battle Metal, featuring victorious warriors and their glory, more double-bass drum histrionics, good clean main riff (even inspired me to some head-bobbing), and majestic-sounding, triumphant keyboards and vocals.  It is unfortunate that FC feel the need to repeat themselves as often as they do.  There are a couple of pretty precise shifts here (2:55 and 6 minutes in), and there is an excellent lead guitar solo at 5:20.  The 7-minute mark finds us listening to one final lead burst as things draw to a close.  The ‘special’ version of this is special because it has violins and acoustic guitars, unplugged style.  I’m sure that they didn’t intend for this particular track to be one of the highlights, but it is…

Eyes of the World is another number which features a triumphant synth/guitar intro, and MORE of the pounding of the double-bass drums.  Don’t worry, it’s not to ad nauseum – at least not yet.  Super chugging riffs and lots of happy keyboards add to the mix, and there are more viking vocals, of course.  At 1:30 they shift into overdrive, and at 2:30 there is a keyboard-driven shift.  At 2:45 there is another lead guitar solo, and at 3 minutes in they kick things into double time.  There is another version of this track from a live show in 2004.

Flying High features trip-hammer drums on the intro, then look out, because the guitars are coming!  Ramy slams the double bass drums AGAIN (doesn’t he ever get tired?), and at 1:30 there is a sort of circus atmosphere going on, with a shift of sorts.  Lyrically we are ‘On wings of eternity/On the brink of reality’.  Mention is made of a ‘heavenly kingdom divine‘, which is incongruous with the title track (666), but whatever, right?  At 2:50 there is a lead guitar solo, and if that wasn’t enough, there is another one at 3:20.

Warriors (Live 2011) is another tune that has three different versions on board.  The vocal intro is mainly crowd banter, and some is in German, so don’t strain to hear or understand unless you are familiar with the language.  I found myself headbanging a bit again here, but no neck strain or serious hair flying.  The main riff is clean and crunchy, and there is plenty of nice guitar work going on.  Lyrically, they ‘Came from the night/Defenders of life/Returning from darkness‘, which, to be quite honest, is a bit mundane even for these folks.  There is a shift at the three-minute mark, and another lead guitar solo at 3:30.  This quickly morphs into a twin harmony lead, taking a page from the book(s) of Lizzy, Priest or Wishbone Ash.

Island of Dreams features bells on the intro, and more of the same formulaic power rock that we’ve already heard.  It’s a good formula, but a bit repetitive.  Then again, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  Happy keys and drums are the driving force, both with a triumphant tone again (why are they so jubilant?).  At about 2:30, the monks begin chanting again, and at 2:45 there is a lead guitar solo WITH a double-bass drum attack.  At 3:20 they shift into overdrive, and at 3:45 they move into double time again.

Land of Light (Live 2011) includes yet another happy keyboard intro with a nice bass line.  It is a bit mellower than the others, but it does feature another of the chugging simple riffs that we’ve already heard.  There is also an atmospheric vibe in this tale of power, and I was reminded of Europe‘s ‘Final Countdown‘ (and not for the last time).  At 3:15 we have the obligatory guitar solo.

Bleeding Heart features ANOTHER triumphant key intro, then some really beautiful piano.  There is a bluesy vocal here as well, which is always a good sign in my humble opinion.  At one minute in, the proceedings kick in a bit, and we get some more sappy lyrics; ‘And I believe in you and me/In all your words of love and light/When we began/I gave you my hand’.  At 3:25 there is a poignant but effective moment featuring acoustic guitar to go with the piano.

Flame in the Night has another of the atmospheric intros mentioned earlier, but includes some fairly forceful keys, drums and guitar.  There is more of the same happy, triumphant keyboards and vocals as well.  Lyrically, it’s almost sappy again; ‘My star will shine/Like a flame in the night/Remember the journey never ends/My power and glory will rise forever.  We also get a late shift into low gear (3:20) and things fade out at about the four-and-a-half minute mark.  Powerworld’s version of this track (contained herein) is riffier, heavier, slower and even better than FC’s.  I bet they didn’t intend for that, either!

Warriors is up next (again),and for my money, the unplugged version is the best.  It is very cool, but again, probably not intended to be a highlight.  It almost seems tongue-in-cheek at times, and technically, it is NOT actually unplugged completely.  There is a very nice groove, though!  The Hannes Braun version is very cool, including a beautiful piano line and some excellent vocals.

Ages of Power has one more of the atmospheric keyboard intros with riffs (anybody getting a bit tired of the formula yet?).  Turn Back Time is a more mellow, traveling-type number, featuring mellow acoustics and a sweetly beautiful acoustic intro.  There is a slow and stately lead at the three-minute mark.  Neonfly’s version of Land of Light is, again, slower and more introspective than FC’s version.  There is another beautiful acoustic intro, and I can’t help but wonder if they had a bad idea when they included alternate versions of their own tunes by OTHER bands that sound BETTER than their own versions..?

As I mentioned earlier, there is a LOT of repetition on here.  This double-disc set could easily have pared down to a single disc.  It would have made it MUCH better.  As it is, listening in was more like an endurance test than anything.



Rick Ossian


   

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