Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Metal Allegiance - Volume II: Power Drunk Majesty

The super group formula is a concept that has been done what feels like a million times in recent times, with side projects, collaborations, and friendly experimentations popping up here and there at a consistent pace. Most of these are fairly harmless, a chance for the people involved to express themselves a little bit more outside of their main bands, but there are also those that feels like instant cash grabs, a way to push the fan's nostalgia buttons. Metal Allegiance might not be a pure cash grab, but it is easy to see it as one, knowing how they have been promoted by Nuclear Blast, so even if this group feels like a friendly get together, there is still something bugging me about it all.

So the talent pool in Metal Allegiance is certainly no laughing matter. The group consists of Alex Skolnick (Testament), David Ellefson (Megadeth), and Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater), but as far as the vocals go, the trio hires vocalists from all around the metal globe to do the job. In this installment, we have Johan Hegg (Amon Amarth), John Bush (ex-Anthrax), Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth (Overkill), Mark Tornillo (Accept), Floor Jansen (Nightwish), Max Cavalera (ex-Sepultura, Soulfly), Troy Sanders (Mastodon), Trevor Strnad (The Black Dahlia Murder), and Mark Osegueda (Death Angel). Wow, that is quite a cast, especially when you also have a little guitar work from Joe Satriani, Nita Strauss (Alice Cooper), and Andreas Kisser (Sepultura).

You see though, the talent pool was not exactly poor last time around either, but the song writing was, making the band look like a glorified cover band. That is something Mike, David, and Alex has worked on, because "Volume II..." sounds a lot more cohesive, like it has a clear cut identity to build upon. Sure, the songs get tweaked a little bit to fit the vocalist, but it never feels like a poor b-side track that the vocalist just scooped up from the bottom of the drawer, except for two songs, the slower Overkill rip off "Mother of Sin", and the heavily "Roots" inspired "Voodoo of The Godsend".

There is otherwise a good amount of quality tracks in this record, which certainly surprised me. Sure, nothing in here will make you lose your breath over its suffocating excellence, but there is some golden moments in here, like the beautiful solo in the otherwise dark and heavy "King With A Paper Crown", or Portnoy's nifty drum work in "Terminal Illusion". However, there are as many strange decisions as well, like not giving the amazing Floor Jansen more room to work on in the second part of the title track. The sound consistency is there, but the same cannot be said in terms of quality.

I still see Metal Allegiance as a deluxe version of a cover band, a chance for a bunch of buddies to drink and play music (the drinking part is not confirmed). "Volume II..." is certainly a serviceable album that has a playful attitude, but it still has a major problem, that there is no real reason for it to exist. Mike, Alex, and David takes a step towards establishing this project into a real band, but I still would rather hear them in their respective main bands (which for Mike must be Sons of Apollo? The Winery Dogs?). They got power, and they might be drunk, but a majesty this band ain't.

Songs worthy of recognition: Terminal Illusion, The Accuser, King With A Paper Crown

Rating: 6,5/10 Liars & Thieves


Sunday, September 2, 2018

Helloween - Keeper of The Seven Keys: Part 2 (1988)

The second part of the epic "Keeper of The Seven Keys" series was released just over a year after the first part, and with the success that the first amassed, this sequel could relish in the attention that the band has suddenly got. This album became popular quickly, gathering new fans all across the globe, and cementing its legacy as the most successful Helloween record, being so still to this date. But why did it become so popular? Is it really better than its bigger brother? And where are the other 6 keys at?

First question first, one main reason to why the second part is slightly higher regarded is that it contains the two most famous Helloween songs ever made. The opener "Eagle Fly Free" may have never been officially released as a single, but it quickly became a humongous fan favourite thanks to its rapid speed and its epicly catchy chorus. Hell, the entire song is epic, mostly thanks to Kiske and his amazing vocals. Then we have "I Want Out", a more traditional heavy metal song with a memorable main riff, a simple but effective chorus, and a Gary Moore like feeling that will make every metal head bang. It is a classic for all the right reasons, but it is kind of a shame that the more casual fans only know this song from the band, and no other.

While those two tracks might steal the show, there are still a lot of other goodies on "Keeper of The Seven Keys: Part 2". This album is incredibly solid through and through, never dipping down into some sort of abysmal abyss of mediocrity, keeping the quality levels high. Just like with the first part, there are some real 80's moments in here that may not be some of my favourites moments in this record, taking away from some of the more creative bits of the record, but they are still really enjoyable songs that contribute nicely to the album.

One track in here that definitely does not get enough credit is "March of Time", probably because it gets outshined by "Eagle Fly Free". This track is also a epic force of nature where Kiske pushes his voice to the limit, and the results are glorious beyond belief. In any other Helloween record, this would have been the stand out track. One song that do stand out is the title track that ends this album just like "Helloween" did in the first part, by being a 13 and a half minute epic monster. This is a different kind of monster though, not as heavy hitting, but more delicate in its delivery. It is a fine ending to the story with its fantasy like aura, and while I definitely prefer "Halloween", "Keeper of The Seven Keys" ties it all up nicely.

So the differences between the two "Keeper..." records are pretty much minimal, with some more star potential in the second part, but does that make it a better record? Not necessarily, but it is instead the higher floor that is the difference maker for me. "Keeper... Part 2" is a much more even record, with no filler tracks, no annoying sound effects, and it also helps that it contains three of the best Helloween songs ever made. It is a hell of a double header Helloween has created, one of the absolute best metal has ever seen, and while none of the two albums are perfect, they are still incredibly important, both for Helloween and power metal in general. A classic for sure, one that has not lost its shine.

Songs worthy of recognition: Eagle Fly Free, March of Time, I Want Out, Keeper of The Seven Keys

Rating: 9,5/10 Dr. Steins


More reviews of Helloween
Walls of Jericho
Keeper of The Seven Keys: Part 1
Straight Out of Hell
My God-Given Right

Thursday, August 30, 2018

From Worst To First: Dream Theater albums

So in my last discography review, I chose to just rank the band's albums instead of ranking and rating a bunch of random shit, mostly because I felt that it was a lot of unnecessary work for very little payoff. Sure, just ranking the albums is not the most original thing, but I found it to be a lot more satisfying to wrap up a journey in this way. Then it came to me, how about doing exactly that for the other bands I have done discography reviews on in the past. With some time to spare (thanks to a slow period in album releases and a lack of inspiration), I now start a quest to do a "From Worst To First" ranking on all other 10 bands I have reviewed every single album of.

The first band I gave this review treatment to was Dream Theater, and I have to admit that there was not any real good reason to why I did so. I love progressive metal, and they are more or less the creators of the genre, so that might be the answer? Well, I don't know, I love the band, and going through their discography once more was fun. A whooping five years have past since I did close off this discography review, and some of those opinions I uttered back then have not stood the test of time all that well, so these rankings might be a surprise if you tried to figure out the order basing from those reviews.

Some final disclaimers before I start, this is a ranking of all the band's 13 full length albums, so no live albums, singles, or EPs (sorry "A Change of Seasons"). Also, this is my list and my opinions, so I am neither wrong or right here, and neither are you. Feel free to rank the albums yourself, either in the comment section, or on Twitter (@ForsakenGates). Let's get to the rankings!

13. Falling From Infinity

Thanks to pressure from their record company, "Falling Into Infinity" became a slight mess of an album that was divided in what it wanted to do. The more commercial sound is not well suited for the band, leaving an album that feels bland and unimaginative. It still has its moments though, like the heavy nature of "Burning My Soul" or the soothing "Peruvian Skies", and it does sound better than what I remembered, but against such stiff competition, it just does not hold up. This is certainly an album that is not rising any time soon.

12. The Astonishing

When I reviewed this album back in 2016, I was blinded by all the hard work and effort the band had put into this project, missing the obvious fact that the music itself was very bland and dull. I still admire the length the band went for, a very ambitious Shakespearean concept record with a website that was filled with information to back it up. The problem is that the band was a little too ambitious, ending up with a double album (or quadruple LP) that spanned over 2 hours and contained 34 tracks, with only a handful of them being memorable. It is an astonishing blob of theatrical music that may be impressive, but it is a lot of work for such little pay off.

11. When Dream And Day Unite

The debut record is a rough outing for the band in almost every aspect. The production is far from sleek, the song writing is not the sharpest, and singer Charlie Dominici is an even weaker link than James LaBrie ever was. It is still an album that showed what the band could be capable of in the future, showing tons of excellent technical abilities that most bands would only dream of performing. The instrumental piece "Ytse Jam" is the perfect showcase for the band, to prove to the world that they will be a force that could be counted on. An interesting start, with a few fumbles along the way.

10. A Dramatic Turn of Events

This is the first of the Mike Mangini albums, but since this album was written before the band found their new drummer, it was a little simplified so that anyone could keep up with their tempo. "A Dramatic Turn of Events" is a pretty unspectacular album that still has some stand out moments, like the opener "On The Backs of Angels" and the epic "Bridges In The Sky". I just have a couple of questions. Why in the hell is there three ballads in this album? And how does it come that they all suck? And what in the hell is that rope connected to?

9. Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence

For a band that made a name for itself thanks to its technical skills, "Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence" might be the most complex of all Dream Theater records. A double album that goes on for over one and a half hours, with the title track being over 40 minutes of itself. This is a meaty record to swallow, and I still to this day have trouble getting it all down in one meal, but there is definitely enough ear candy in here that makes you come back to this record. "The Glass Prison" is reason enough to revisit this technical enigma of an album.

8. Systematic Chaos

The title of this record is pretty accurate, because "Systematic Chaos" is crafted with a lot of chaotic elements that should not go together, but they do... most of the time. No other album in the Dream Theater discography has a bigger gap between the highs and the lows, going from bland mainstream attempts ("Forsaken") to insane thrash like madness ("Constant Motion"). This sandwich has some great bread in the two parter "In The Presence of Enemies", but the filling is a mixed bag, making it a little less tasty. I just hope those giant ants on the cover does not attack me for not loving their record.

7. S/T

The self titled release was described as a rich chocolate cake by the band, and while I do not fully agree on that description, it is still a meaty record. It is a sneaky good record that may fade away when you mention the band's other records, but it is far from a push over, containing some really nice tunes like "Behind The Veil, "Surrender To Reason", and "The Enemy Inside". This self titled record may not blow you away, but it gives you a solid amount of good progressive metal, giving you a nice, happy little sugar rush. Huh, I guess that cake comparison is not that far off after all.

6. Octavarium

I really should put this album on the number 8 spot, because of reasons, but "Octavarium" is a little too good for me to do so. It is obvious from the get go that the band had a clear idea with what they wanted to do with this record, and they execute it really well. "Octavarium" has an impressive range of songs that tie together real nicely into a rock solid record. Just the fact that the mellow "These Walls" can be in the same room as the frantic "Panic Attack" is an impressive feat, and adding a bunch of other good tracks just adds to the awe. The power of eight is strong with this one.

5. Train of Thought

Without any question the band's heaviest album, "Train of Thought" was a dark experience that saw Dream Theater in one of their moodiest performances, but it might also be one of their more diverse albums, showing an impressive range of heavy, catchy, epic, and haunting. Feels like this album has been forgotten over the years, outshined by other outings, but I still think its heavy nature makes it stand out, as a big stone golem that can squish you with a single punch. It is a train that stops for nothing, delivering the metal goods to your ears.

4. Black Clouds & Silver Linings

The last hurrah from Mike Portnoy is a great one, a six song assault that worked on a simple premise, writing great and solid progressive metal. The band definitely went with quality over quantity here, presenting some extremely fine tunes that still sticks with me today. I can definitely go without "The Best of Times" and "Wither", but the remaining four songs are a wonderful group of prog metal goodness, from the angelic "A Rite of Passage", to the symphonic "The Count of Tuscany". It is a simple record, with a lot of complex candy hidden within.

3. Awake

It is easy for "Awake" to be in the shadow of "Images And Words" since it was the first record after, but this record holds up just as well with some of the sleekest sounds that we have heard from the band. There is just something special with this album, something with its vibe that makes it incredibly enjoyable through and through. While there are few songs that truly stands out ("6:00" and "Lie" does so the most), it is the whole package that makes "Awake" such a mesmerizing record. The flow is exquisite, and all of the songs feel like they belong together. This is certainly a unified album that just works, from first to last second.

2. Images And Words

The most well known Dream Theater album is not the best one, but it is one I keep coming back to time and time again (have to "Take The Time" you know, haha). "Images And Words" is obviously highlighted by "Pull Me Under" (rightfully so), but the fact that this record also have songs like "Take The Time", "Another Day", "Learning To Live", and "Metropolis - Part 1 (The Miracle And The Sleeper)" is just silly. It is the album that showed exactly what the band was capable of, an album that defined an entire genre, an album that is one of the most important metal records in general. However, if the ultimate highlight "Metropolis - Part 1..." showed us anything, it was that the band could get even better.

1. Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory

There are few concept records that I hold higher in regard. The epic saga about Nicholas and his therapy sessions is the band's magnum opus for a reason. It is a multi layered storybook of emotions that has a fantastic pace and flow, both in tale and in music. Once this bad boy has started playing, you just cannot get away from it, you have to finish it to the very end. Everyone is on their A-game, giving performances that is as close to perfection that you can get. The goosebumps are always close by whenever this is on, and it is a feeling that will never get old, no matter how many times that record has been spun. A true progressive masterpiece.

And as a bonus, here are my ten favourite songs from the band, in alphabetical order.

A Change of Seasons
This is how you do a 20+ minute magnum opus

A Nightmare To Remember
Not too shabby for a song about a car crash

Bridges In The Sky
A very underrated goody from the new era of the band

Constant Motion
It spins me round and round, and I can't let go

Finally Free
That ending... THAT ENDING!

Just an epic win, all the way through.

Metropolis - Part 1 (The Miracle And The Sleeper)
So many epic moments in here

Panic Attack
A scary hell ride through riffs and solos

Pull Me Under
The only hit the band ever made is still as grand today as it was back then

Take The Time
There is always time for this classic

Stay Metal
Robert "Sharkruisher" Andersson

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Southern Empire - Civilisation (2018)

Progressive metal is in some sort of a golden age as of now, with tons of new bands popping up here and there, coming out with solid material that eats up the listener's free time like the Cookie Monster eats cookies. It is hard enough to keep up with all things surrounding metal today with the sheer quantity of new releases, and it certainly does not help when several of these records are over one hour long. One of these albums is the sophomore effort of Southern Empire called "Civilisation", which despite only having 4 songs are clocking in at 1 hour and 8 minutes. Let us hope that these Australian lads have gone full force with quality over quantity here.

So since there are only 4 songs to go through, I think it just feels right to look at each of the songs and sum it up at the end. First up is the shortest song of the record, the 9-minute short "Goliath's Moon" that tells the tale of a man and his diamond, of how he found it, sold it, found it again, and could not buy it. That's it, nothing more to take from this story that is as simple as it goes. This is definitely the catchiest song of the record, with a lot of resemblance to what Haken has done in recent years, having a little retro touch to this modern progressive sound. It is a nice opener that certainly puts you in the right mood, but it still leaves you wanting more, not setting the bar all too high for the remaining 3 tracks.

Onto track numero dos, "Cries For The Lonely". If the previous track was Haken, then this one is early years Dream Theater, with a lot of nice instrumental work in the beginning, before the bombastic vocals, courtesy of Danny Lopresto, kicks in with quite an entrance. The rest of the 19 minute ride is up and down through different tempos and moods, keeping your attention throughout its entire run time. It is a song that really show the capability of the band, like the nifty keyboard work of Sean Timms, or the perfectly weighed drumming of Brody Green. It takes quite some skills to make long ass songs, and Southern Empire definitely seem to have them.

However, I do think they bit off more than they could chew with the third, and the longest, track called "The Crossroads". It starts off promising, with a Middle Eastern vibe that is really cool and interesting, with some added xylophones and pan flutes as well. But it is around the 13 minute mark the song loses me, somewhere during the frantic uses of violins where the song just feels like it met a literal crossroad. It goes all over the place, until it almost comes to a stand still halfway through, only to become a completely different song all together. Nothing in this track sounds lazy or anything, but it is a divided song that cannot keep it together throughout all of its 29 minutes. It still sounds nice when you are just listening to it, not thinking about when a song starts or stops, but it ain't a mastodon master piece by any means.

Last one up is the 10 minute long "Innocence & Fortune", which sees the band go back to the Haken inspired sound we saw in "Goliath's Moon". It is a mellow song that does have an epic guitar solo to boot (good job there Cam Blokland), and it works nicely as a soothing end to this record. It might be the most underwhelming song though, not having as strong of a presence as its brothers, but it has a task, and it does so well.

So "Civilisation" is certainly a really nice progressive rock album that has a really nice flow to it, with 4 tracks that all have their fair share of cool moments (even though I still think "The Crossroads" should have been split into 2). It is a clean record that deserves a lot of praise, but might not get too much knowing of the competition in today's prog world, especially since Australia has produced a lot of good bands in recent memory. As far as a sophomore record goes, "Civilisation" is as solid as it can get, and it touches the clouds thanks to its quality. To reach beyond though, they might have to learn how to trim some of that extra weight.

Songs worthy of recognition: Cries For The Lonely, Goliath's Moon

Rating: 8/10 Crossroads


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Helloween - Keeper of The Seven Keys: Part 1 (1987)

There are few metal albums out there that has the same legendary pedigree as Helloween's two parter "Keeper of The Seven Keys". It is a duo of albums that more or less created the power metal genre and all its tropes, taking some of the elements from their debut record "Walls of Jericho" and dialing them up to eleven. It is two landmark records that have a permanent impact on metal in general, so let us now see how well they hold up today, starting with part 1.

The biggest difference for Helloween from debut to sophomore effort is the line-up change. Feeling it was difficult to handle both guitar and vocal duties, Kai Hansen stepped down as the singer, and a young man named Michael Kiske entered the frame. Michael is more or less exactly what you want in a power metal singer, he handles all the high notes extremely well, creating long and soaring notes that us mere mortals would only dream of making, and he can also follow the melodies with ease. Seriously, it is like Helloween did not hold a audition for the vocal job, but instead went down to a lab to manufacture the perfect specimen.

So with that sorted out, Kai could focus more on the guitar work, and that let him be more free in his expression. Together with his partner in crime, Michael Weikath, Kai is showing some brilliant guitar work throughout the record, from galloping riffs to sweeping picks. One of my favourite bits are in the chorus of "Twilight of The Gods", where we hear this fast zig zag pattern in the background, a technical goody that elevates the chorus. I also love all the heavy riffs in the monstrosity that is known as "Halloween", a 13 minute track that ends the album in epic fashion with tons of different moods, techniques, and even a reference to the beloved children's figure Charlie Brown. It is quite a homage to that holiday.

The biggest strength of "Keepers of The Seven Keys: Part 1" is just how tight the whole album sounds. With a play time of just under 37 minutes and a quantity of 8 tracks, Helloween makes sure no second is wasted in this album, filling it with either blazing speed ("I'm Alive"), emotional ballads ("A Tale That Wasn't Right"), or even some pure 80's goodness ("A Little Time" and the single "Future World"). Only down time is the intro and outro of the record, but everything in between is all business, portrayed by a band that has found that perfect recipe to create some nice heavy music.

The only thing I am a little petty about is that the band uses a bunch of sound effects throughout the record that does not really add anything useful, skewing the listeners concentration to the wrong spot. From an alarm clock and buzzer, to laughing children and robotic voices, these sound bites does not really serve any real purpose other adding some gimmick to the song, and I can absolutely handle one or two of those, but there are simply too many in this short of an album.

Oh well, a couple of sound snippets should not ruin an experience, and it does not so in this case. This first part of the "Keeper of The Seven Keys" saga is rock solid in every aspect, combining all of the great qualities that every power metal release should possess. It is fast, epic, a ton of fun, and tight as hell, really living up to the "No filler, all killer" motto. It is a fast start that sets the bar high for the second half of the double header, let us hope Helloween has not burned out all their energy too early.

Songs worthy of recognition: Halloween, I'm Alive, Twilight of The Gods, Future World

Rating: 9/10 Initiations


More reviews of Helloween
Walls of Jericho
Straight Out of Hell
My God-Given Right

Friday, August 17, 2018

Van Canto - Trust In Rust (2018)

As a metalhead, rust would be the last thing I would have any trust to. This end product of a chemical reaction is like the plague for most types of metal, corroding it until there is nothing left. Sure, it may not have an effect on metal music, but you can never be too sure of that. So yeah, this title on a metal album makes no sense at all... unless the Germans in Van Canto mean that you should use rust to scale off your outer musical shell, leaving an end product that consists of only vocals and a drum kit. Nah, that just sounds stupid.

Anyway, Van Canto has done a tremendous job in being relevant, despite their gimmicky style. "Trust In Rust" is album number seven for a band that has only existed for twelve years, so you cannot complain about their work ethic. This group of seven certainly have a ton of passion for their body of work, giving it all for those "dandan" and "rakkatakka" sounds that makes up for the lack of guitar and bass. Despite the quality and passion, it still feels a little awkward to hear this instead of something of the more electrical kind.

Now, I understand that a bunch of voices cannot perfectly replicate the rich sound that a perfect symbiosis between a bass and a guitar can create, but Van Canto sounds flatter in "Trust In Rust" than what they usually do. The production seems to restrict the band in what they can present, making both the drums and the rhythm vocals a little quieter than what they need to be, not giving that much needed kick start to the power in their sound. Maybe some of that blame could be to the song writing, but it is still pretty basic Van Canto stuff after all, so it should not be such a notable difference, yet it is.

And when I say basic, I really mean basic. There are very few songs in here that I can remember from the top of my head, with most of the tracks either being weaker replicas of previous material, or just straight up forgettable. "Desert Snake" is one of few tracks that stands out, with its heavier aura it captures the attention of the listener quite good, and newcomer Hagen Hirschmann gets to shine with some Accept like vocals (unfortunately it is one of few times he do shine on this first attempt, he has some work to do for the next album). Not letting her be shunned aside that easily, Inga Scharf takes the charge several times in songs like "Javelin" and "Infinity" where she shows both beauty and power in her delivery. I also like the only true a capella song in here "Heading Home" (in other words, no drums) that closes the record in a very nice and calming way.

Then we have the covers, which I thought Van Canto had ditched since their last album was the first without (it was also their first concept record, it was fine imo). The first cover is of AC/DC's "Hells Bells", which Van Canto puts sort of a "Lord of The Rings" spin on, which is a really nice idea, except that Hagen tries a little too hard to become the next Brian Johnson. The second cover is of "Ride The Sky" by Helloween, and they do a great job in covering it. I just have one question though, what the hell is Kai Hansen doing there? Yes, THE Kai Hansen is helping out in this cover, but you can barely hear him because Inga over power him throughout the song, and he does not get his own section anywhere, ultimately making his inclusion completely pointless. Van Canto has done this before in their career, covering a song with the original singer, and those covers work great with those singers, so how did they mess this one up? Just baffling to me.

It feels like "Trust In Rust" lacks that confidence that some of the earlier albums had, a confidence that said "We do not care if you think this is dumb, we are giving it our all anyway". This album is a little more quiet, a little hesitant in showing off its chops, and that is a problem when we are dealing with a band that is pretty naked in its sound already. Not even the opening track, "Back In The Lead", feels strong and confident, despite it trying to be a dynamic blast of a start. It is overall a pretty bland experience that cannot reach the level of fun goofiness that the band has shown before. Be sure of this, this particular rust is not to be trusted.

Songs worthy of recognition: Heading Home, Javelin, Infinity

Rating: 5/10 Desert Snakes


More reviews of Van Canto
Dawn of The Brave

Monday, August 13, 2018

Otep - Kult 45 (2018)

Otep Shamaya is one angry woman. A woman who will not be silenced, make her voice and opinion heard through her aggressive attitude, and now that 'murica has a ultra controversial business man in the White House, Otep has a ton of ammo at her disposal, ready to unleash unto the world. So let us see if Otep and her crew's 8th offering contains a bunch of sharp shooting missiles, or if it is just filled with a lot of blanks.

Sure enough, Otep comes out guns blazing in several songs on "Kult 45", blasting everyone who stands in her way. To no one's surprise, President Donald Trump and the rest of the United States government is in the line of fire most of the time, although Otep states that the raw and dirty lyrics are meant to empower the listener, to make themselves heard in the political climate. Well, it certainly work to some degree, but I bet you all that there are a ton of people that are gonna interpret these lyrics in a different way. Take "Shelter In Place" for example, where Otep is complaining about all these school shootings, asking the NRA how many kids they have killed today. The message is in theory good, but could have possibly delivered a little better (and it does not help that in the video she called the NRA a terrorist group, yikes).

Anyway, most of Otep's music is all about attitude, and we certainly got buckets full of those. Songs like "Molotov", "Undefeated", and "Cross Contamination" has Otep going at full force, rapping her way through the haters like a warm knife through butter. You can say what you want about her style of nu/alternative metal, but you have to admit that her confidence levels are high enough to carry even the more questionable parts of the record, like this one line in "Invisible People" that just makes me laugh every time (sorry, not sorry).

"I've got something to say, and it's gonna be savage/Fuck you in English, fuck you in Spanish" (followed by a bunch of fuck you's)

As always when it comes to Otep records, "Kult 45" is at its best when the messages are accompanied with a meaty and groovy riff. Guitarist Ari Mihapoulos can certainly deliver some great memorable riffs when he wants to, with some of the better ones are in the heavy and scary "Said The Snake", and also "To The Gallows". The instrumentation is otherwise an after thought in "Kult 45", which honestly does not surprise me, but I wished for some more meat to this bone. I do not care that they try to mimic Rage Against The Machine in "Wake Up", give me some inspiration. Well, maybe they do not get enough screen time, with half of the songs being under 3 minutes.

Amidst all this aggression we have some more laid back moments, with both "Undefeated" and "Boss" being more of a spoken word effort, with very little music and a lot of Otep rapping. Then at the end of the record we have a ballad. Yep, Otep made a ballad that is called "Be Brave", which feels so strange for several reasons. It does not really fit into the album, and to be quite frank, it does not match with Otep's personality as well. Then we have the fact that "Be Brave" sounds like something Evanescence would conceive during their hey days, so that is... certainly something. As said, it is strange to say the least.

One last thing I want to mention before I sum things up, a bonus track that certainly caught my attention. It is called "The Tribe Speaks", and it is not a song, it is a half an hour track with several of Otep's fans calling in, telling how much her music has meant to them and how much they love her. I am not sure why this track exist, probably to show how big Otep's "tribe" is and that it can be a force to be reckoned with, but it could also be seen as a ego boost for Otep, a reminder of what she has accomplished. One thing is for certain, Trump is not popular in the "Tribe", with most of these callers just saying "fuck Trump". My favourite has to be a guy who described Trump's administration with a flushing toilet, he got a chuckle out of me.

"Kult 45" is ultimately a very, VERY uneven record. It is like that one South Park episode when Cartman used a machine gun to hold off the Chinese mafia. Sure, he is dangerous as hell, but the bullets are flying everywhere, barely hitting anything. Otep has a ton of firepower at her disposal, but I do not feel like she had the means this time around to focus it all for it to be lethal, leading to an album that lacks a musical direction and some sure fire knock out punches. Her tribe will surely still stand by her since she is still speaking her mind and doing what she want to do, but for a more neutral listener, "Kult 45" is a more hard pill to swallow than some other album she has made.

Songs worthy of recognition: Said The Snake, Molotov, To The Gallows

Rating: 5/10 Shelters In Place


More reviews of Otep
Generation Doom

Friday, August 10, 2018

Helloween - Walls of Jericho (1985)

The market of the power metal genre today is kind of over bloated, with close to every new band coming out being all about knights and dragons, and/or going more for speed than than quality. Not to say that there is not any quality bands out there, they are just harder to find amidst the sea of unoriginal, mediocre bands. Yeah, it was better back in the day when a German band named Gentry entered the scene with hopes of going far with their own type of speed metal. That band eventually changed name to Second Hell, then they changed again, this time to Iron Fist, before finally getting the idea of taking the name of a classic Autumn holiday, but making it a little more evil.

Yes, Helloween is one of the main creators of the power metal genre, and their journey towards metal fame started with the 1985 debut release "Walls of Jericho", an album that could easily be mistaken for a Gamma Ray record simply because I think a lot of people tend to forget that Kai Hansen did the vocal work here, the only Helloween record in which he handled those duties. Otherwise it is no mistaking that this is German power metal, even if it is at its most infant stages, with some blends of speed metal mixed in to bridge the gap between the genres.

Even if their sound was not fully developed, there were still a lot of bits and pieces that would be the staples of this band. Kai roars out those high pitched vocals in a frightening manor, the drums of Ingo Schwichtenberg goes hot from all the double bass usage, and the pure speed of the music would attract a lot of speeding tickets. There is no question that the band had a vision for what they wanted to do, but that they might need some more time and resources to finalize it. This album has some edges that are a little rough after all, but it is a debut record, so you can easily look past it.

Oddly enough, the album starts with the nursery rhyme "London Bridge Is Falling Down", but with trumpets like it is some royal coronation in medieval times. It is a surprising start, and not the only time the band blatantly steals from other famous melodies (the solo in "Gorgar" is very familiar). It transitions into "Ride The Sky", a fast as hell banger with thrash like riffing from Kai and his fellow guitarist Michael Weikath, but it still has this epic feel to it that makes power metal so wonderful. Follow up "Reptile is, just as the title suggest, a little more primal in its nature, a little slower with more focus on the musical side of things, with some nice bass lines as well from Markus Grosskopf.

Then Helloween goes in Judas Priest territory with "Guardians", "Phantoms of Death", and "Metal Invaders, channeling more of the speed metal side of things, which does make the album sound a little uneven in its delivery, but the songs are good enough to hold up on their own. I cannot say the same thing to "Gorgar" however, which just feels like a mediocre Mercyful Fate cover, slowing things down one or two notches too many.

"Walls of Jericho" fortunately ends on two high notes, starting with "Heavy Metal (Is The Law) taking you straight to a live show, placing you among a crowd of thousands that screams with every beat of the track. The longest track of the record, "How Many Tears", closes the album as an epic cry over the state of the world during those days, with Russia and USA having a staring contest against one another and the rest of the world watches on with fright. Pretty interesting that Helloween would put this in an album that also speaks about a gambling monster named Gorgar.

So for a debut, "Walls of Jericho" is more than serviceable, even if it does not have a straight direction to follow it still manages to engage the listener into some good old head banging. It is a first step for a band that sought out to evolve metal with a new and exhilarating style, blazing away at breakneck speeds and soaring vocals. It is a very enjoyable experience that might be a little rough around the edges, but it certainly is a fun album to put in at any time. A great start for a bunch of pumpkin heads.

Songs worthy of recognition: Heavy Metal (Is The Law), Ride The Sky, Guardians, How Many Tears

Rating: 8/10 Gorgars


More reviews of Helloween
Straight Out of Hell
My God-Given Right

Monday, August 6, 2018

Michael Romeo - War of The Worlds, Pt. 1 (2018)

Most progressive metal lovers know Michael Romeo as the mastermind virtuoso in Symphony X, but it is safe to wonder how many knew that he had a short and sweet solo career before he started that band. I certainly did not know that, and now it seems like he wants to revive that project now that his main band is on a mini hiatus. Seems reasonable to put a "Pt. 1" at the end of the title then, because surely it will not take another 24 years between albums right? RIGHT???

Well, that is an issue we have to deal with later, because what we are dealt with in "War of The Worlds, Pt. 1" is just pure brilliance. Just as the name suggests, Michael takes a big deal of inspiration from the famous science fiction novel with the same name by H. G. Wells, telling about a planet scale invasion by aliens from Mars and what happens to the human race. It is a classic story that has been adapted a million times in movies, shows, and other media, but a metal album? It has probably been done before, but it is a first for me, and Michael does a great job in re-telling this well known story, letting the music lead the way.

Helping out Michael is two Johns (DeServio on bass and Macaluso on drums), and vocalist Rick Castellano, who also helped Michael in the song writing. Rick definitely steals the show by being the best younger version of Russell Allen possible, showing a great range and a nice sense to elevate the messages further. I seriously do not know where Michael keeps on finding these fantastic singers who not only has the talent, but also fits like a glove with the music Michael creates.

As expected though, this is ultimately the Michael Romeo show, with him showing off all of his powers that are at his disposal. The best performance from him is definitely in "Differences", a brilliant song in a lot of aspects, and Michael just adds to its sweetness with some great techniques. Listen extra closely to the chorus so you do not miss out on some classic Romeo shredding, just magic for the ears. Otherwise there is a lot of great riffs and melodies coming from that guy's guitar, with some of my personal favourites coming from "Fear The Unknown", "Black", and the previously mentioned "Djinn".

So if you have not guessed it already, "War of The Worlds, Pt. 1" has a lot of similarities to Symphony X, with that melodic, yet heavy, progressive style that has made the band such an entity. However, Michael is mixing in a lot of other influences in here to give it its own identity, and not be just a measly clone of the original. A lot of the orchestral parts in a song like "Believe" actually makes it sound more like something early Dream Theater would do. Then we have some middle eastern vibes in "Djinn", a lot of classical music in several songs, and we also have some dubstep in "F*cking Robots", which is kind of fitting, creating an atmosphere for those giant three legged machines to lay waste on the Earth. It is certainly the best use of that "wub wub" bullshit since Korn made that hit or miss record "The Path of Totality".

So if there was any doubt on that Michael Romeo could not succeed without the rest of Symphony X, then I think this album completely crushes those doubts. "War of The Worlds, Pt. 1" is a whole new journey through a classic story, and it sounds better than ever. It is another testament on Michael's capabilities, to take his signature playing style and giving it a new outfit with a bunch of new guys helping out. This is an impressive album from start to finish, with tons of fire power and quality to the very brim, so obviously this is a must for lovers of progressive metal, and really all other metal lovers as well. Let us just hope that it does not take another 24 years for Michael to release part 2.

Songs worthy of recognition: Differences, Fear of The Unknown, Black, Djinn, Constellations

Rating: 9,5/10 F*cking Robots


Saturday, August 4, 2018

Game review: Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy (Switch version)

The first gaming console I owned was the original Sony Playstation, a grey block that did not really look like much to the world, but it certainly had an impact on a whole generation of gamers. I loved playing with it, with titles like "Spyro The Dragon", "Croc", "Ape Escape", "Disney's Tarzan", and even "Who Wants To Be A Millionare". However, none of these games could match the pure awesomeness that was Crash Bandicoot, a derpy and orange critter that spun his way into my heart with his shit eating grin and incredibly silly victory dance. I played the hell out of both "Crash Team Racing" and "Crash Bandicoot: Warped", and I followed Crash throughout his adventures in the future console generations, both the good times ("Crash Twinsanity", "Crash Nitro Kart"), and the bad ("Crash of The Titans", "Crash Mind Over Mutant").

So when the CEO of Sony walked out to the stage during E3 2016 in a sandy beach, leaving foot prints behind him with a very familiar shadow following him, I lost my shit. Hearing about this remaster woke the kid in me, giving me those happy nostalgic thoughts once again. I was kind of disappointed that no new adventure was presented (no, his inclusion in "Skylanders" does not count), but this was a promising start, and after a year of PS4 exclusivity, the "N. Sane Trilogy" was finally released for the remaining platforms, including my beloved little Nintendo Switch.

Now, I was kind of worried that the game was developed by Vicarious Visions, who had only made a handful of handheld Crash titles in the past, but I gotta say that they did a fine job in handling this classic trilogy. The graphics are splendid and crisp, but they still have that cartoony style that made Crash so lovable in the first place. The colors are vibrant, there is a ton of detail, and the designs of the characters are amazing (although I do think the made Tawna a little too sexy, them furries are having a field day with her). I also love that the original voice cast is back, it just feels right in every aspect.

As far as the core game play goes, there is very little changed from the original versions. The only real difference is that the first two games have now gotten their own time trial mode, which I guess is expected, but these games were not made for speed running, so they are a pain to get any higher relic than gold. Speaking of difficulty, people created this meme were this game was declared as "The Dark Souls of platforming", which I never really understood. Sure, the first original Crash game was stupid difficult, but it has been nerfed here, so I did not know what the fuzz was about. Well, now that I actually played the game I understand why the meme was born, because the physics of Crash are much heavier than I was used to, which initially led to a lot of dumb deaths, but just like most memes, it is a little exaggerated. After some practice, I could handle Crash just fine, and the level of difficulty never really felt unfair, but it is still challenging nonetheless.

So let us talk through the games one by one, starting obviously with the original "Crash Bandicoot". This is the game where Vicarious Visions have done the most tweaks, and they are all welcome. Managing in the level select map is easier, you can see which levels you need to complete in order to get a colored gem, and most welcome change of them all, you can die during a level and still get the gem (well, except for said colored gem levels). This makes the game much more fair, and makes levels like "The High Road" and "Sunset Vista" much less rage inducing. I also liked that you had the opportunity to play as Crash's sister, Coco, which is something you can do in all three games.

One thing I hoped the developers would have messed around with was the boss fights, because they are all ridiculously easy, save for Ripper Roo, who is just tedious. Papu Papu is a simple enough start boss, but you can kill him before he even completes one attack, Koala Kong is just showing off is small ass, and Pinstripe Potoroo is just a huge joke. He is the 4th boss of the game, a rat that looks like a mob boss with his suit and gun, and all you do is hide and spin, hide and spin, HIDE AND SPIN! Last two bosses, N. Brio and Cortex, are sort of a saving grace, but they are still a little too easy knowing how hard the platforming is. I would definitely have not minded some harder boss battles.

Just an average day in the life of a mob boss
Onto game two, entitled "Cortex Strikes Back", a game that introduced a whole bunch of elements that became a main stay in the Crash universe. It is the first game where you gather crystals, find hidden paths to secret levels and different ways to gather those elusive colored gems (including the first level where you have to go through the entire level without breaking a single box), and also introducing the warp room system, which lets players chose to play between 5 levels in any order they want before fighting a boss. Crash also got a couple of more abilities at his disposal, like a slide maneuver that can help him jump higher, and a body slam to break harder boxes

The environments of the levels were in a larger quantity as well, with some returning, like the ruins and the jungle, and a bunch of new ones, like winter levels, sewer levels, and a couple of more futuristic levels. We also saw the return of the hog level, but this time Crash rides a small polar bear named Polar (real creative there Naughty Dog), which are more fast paced and fun. We also have the jet pack levels, and yes, they are still extremely awkward in the "N. Sane Trilogy". They might be slightly better, but controlling this jet pack is not an easy feat, and it requires a lot of focus and concentration just to get to the goal, or even get the gem. AND DO NOT GET ME STARTED ON THE GOD DAMN TIME TRIAL!!!

The boss fights are definitely an upgrade, in most cases. Ripper Roo returns as a simple first boss, a nice warm up for things to come... which is an even easier boss battle in the Komodo Brothers. They are the Pinstripe of this game, too easy for where they are placed. Then we have Tiny Tiger, a fantastic character who obviously skipped leg day more than once, and his fight is simple, but it does demand some strategy and usage of Crash's abilities. N. Gin is easily the best fight though, it is epic, cool, and demands a lot of good timing, even if it is kind of bullshit that you fight this giant robot with... Wumpa fruits. Cortex flat out sucks though, spin three times while chasing him with the jet pack, such a dumb final boss.

Personally, I really like this second game, and it has a lot of great details to it, but I saw it as a stepping stone for the third game, and my opinion on that has not changed whilst playing the remastered version. I have heard a lot of people saying that this is their favourite game from the trilogy, and while I do disagree, I cannot blame them for saying so, because it is a fun game that saw our orange hero step his game up.

Then we have the third and final game, "Crash Bandicoot: Warped", and it might be my nostalgia goggles saying this, but this is as close to a flawless game as you can come. "Warped" is just as fun and challenging as I remembered it to be, taking everything that made the second game so good, and ramping it up to a whole new level of awesomeness. We got time trials, we got to play as Coco, new vehicles like planes, jet skis, and motorcycles were introduced, and Crash got even more abilities under his belt, earning a new one every time he defeated a boss, and they are all helpful. The double jump, death tornado spin, and Crash dash are all useful, but nothing can beat the fruit bazooka. Man, that is a cool gadget.

The trusty fruit bazooka, never leave your house without it
What I think sets "Warped" on top of the other games though is the narrative, and how it affected the level designs. The whole story about the time twister and the introduction of Uka Uka and N. Tropy was epic watching it as a kid, and some of that epic nature is kind of lost in this remaster because of how bright that cut scene is, but it is still the best story of all three games. It all gives way to some fantastic level designs too, taking us to the medieval age, ancient China, ancient Egypt, the Jurassic age, and even the future, just to name a few.

Another advantage this game has is the boss fights, which is certainly the best group. We fight Tiny Tiger in the Colisseum with hordes of lions running around, Dingodile (one of my favourite side characters btw) tries to blast us away in some icy cave, we stand face to face with N. Tropy in some Chinese hall, and we fight N. Gin and a gigantic mech suit in freaking space. As per usual, we also fight Cortex as the final boss, while the two mask brothers Aku Aku and Uka Uka fight each other at the same time, creating a surprisingly epic ending fight.

As a bonus, we also got two new levels to the games. First is "Stormy Ascent", an old level created by the original developers Naughty Dog that never made it into the first Crash game, and it is easy to see why. This level is long as hell, and it demands some really precise timing in a lot of the jumps. I cannot imagine trying to complete this level in the old format, where you cannot die if you want the gem, it is definitely a tough masters exam for the worthy. The second level is a completely new level created by Vicarious Visions called "Future Tense". Using the future theme from "Warped", Vicarious has created a very fun and hard level with branching paths, unique enemy formations, a hard to reach death route, and a carefully crafted level design that forces you to use all of your knowledge, skill, and abilities. It is an amazing level through and through, and I can only hope that it is made as an example to what the crew can do if they get the opportunity to create a whole new Crash game, which I hope will happen sooner than later.

So where do I end up on this whole remaster? Well, I was worried getting into this game, but the more I played it, the more those worries faded away, being replaced with pure joy. This is basically my childhood being upgraded to HD quality, and while the Switch version only runs on 30 fps (with the other versions running in 60 fps), it still looks and plays incredible, both docked and in handheld mode. The only thing missing really is a remaster of "Crash Team Racing" as well, then the Naughty Dog collection would be complete once again. It is fantastic to see that these three classic games getting this face lifting, introducing them to a whole new generation of gamers out there. It is just as I remembered it, Crash Bandicoot is spinning and grinning until he is winning.

Rating: 9/10 Wumpa fruits