Mastodon – Progressive Posturing

One of the most anticipated metal albums of the year is undoubtedly Mastodon’s upcoming sixth studio release Once More Around The Sun. It will follow three years after the largely hit-and-miss The Hunter, which saw the band returning to a heavier sound, but unfortunately felt too unfocused and lacked the cohesiveness that previous efforts had in abundance.

Mastodon formed in 2000 and debuted their first full-length effort, Remission, in 2002, showcasing a predominately sludge metal style. Two years later Leviathan was released, featuring a small evolution in their sound, most notable in the clarity of vocals and the more experimental musicianship. The heavy, sludge/stoner riffs were still prominent though and provided the foundation for their ambitious Moby Dick/water element concept record.

Although Mastodon chose to keep the four-element concept record theme on their next release, Blood Mountain (Remission was loosely based on fire; Blood Mountain on Earth), their sound had drastically evolved to become much more progressive, incorporating elements of everything from jazz to straight-up rock. This trend would continue on to 2009’s Crack The Skye, which at times reminded more of Pink Floyd than Melvins, before a middle-ground was reached on 2011’s The Hunter.

About a fortnight ago the Atlanta quartet unveiled Once More Around The Sun‘s lead single, entitled High Road. It starts with a Leviathan-like chugging riff, before Brann Dailor’s progressive drumming-flare explodes around it. The verse vocals are typical Mastodon; filled with agitated screeches and bellows, whilst the verse takes a very clean approach and sees the whole band contributing to the melodies. Half-way through the vocals cease for an extended instrumental bridge, akin to previous tracks like Hunters of The Sky or Quintessence. 

Overall the new single delivers everything a Mastodon fan wants: a churning riff, a multi-vocalist attack and enough progressive posturing to keep you on your toes. Once More Around The Sun is shaping up to be the another great record for one of the most innovative and influential metal bands of the 21st century.

Recommended Mastodon:

  • The Czar: I. Usurper II. Escape III. Martyr IV. Spiral from Crack The Skye
  • Naked Burn from Leviathan
  • Dry Bone Valley from The Hunter
  • Colony Of Birchmen from Blood Mountain
  • Seabeast from Leviathan

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Supergroups pt. 3

Welcome to the final installment of this three part blog series, in which I explore supergroups and the three categories in which they tend to fall into. Firstly, we have the (extremely rare) superb ones; where every member lives up to the excellence for which they are known. Most supergroups seem to fall into the ‘meh’ category; these are bands whose music, although satisfactory, wouldn’t grab your attention if it wasn’t for the high profile of its members. Lastly, we have the failures; the bands who forgot that to be a supergroup requires more than just a headline-grabbing lineup.

So far I have looked at examples from rock and metal, but today I finally turn my attention to the world of progressive supergroups.

The Miserable: Emerson, Lake & Palmer (and associated permutations)

This is a controversial choice, but beyond ELP’s self-titled debut effort, and to a extent its successor Tarkus, their discography becomes increasingly self-indulgent to the point of alienation. ELP’s main emphasis seems to be on showcasing their talents, rather than on decent songwriting, meaning beyond the insincere radio-friendly tracks and handful of enjoyable passages, ELP serve no purpose, other than as a platform for the trio’s collective ego.

After ELP spilt in 1979, they soon reformed with a new drummer Cozy Powell, under the slightly changed name of Emerson, Lake & Powell and then carried on under a final permutation of Emerson, Berry & Palmer, under the name 3. With each successive album and lineup change, the initially promising progressive supergroup became more and more self-absorbed and after several more attempts to reunite and rekindle the ELP flames, they finally seem to have disappeared. Touch wood.

The Meh: OSI

OSI was formed in 2002 by Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos, who was joined by ex-Dream Theater keyboardist and Chroma Key vocalist Kevin Moore and serial collaborator Mike Portnoy. Originally the project was aiming for a progressive metal sound, but Moore altered this, sending OSI into the realm of keyboards and electronica. Not content with the already star-studded membership, OSI have had many guest contributions from the likes of Steven Wilson, Mikael Akerfeldt (Opeth), Tim Bowness (No-Man) and Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree), who replaced Portnoy in the studio from 2009’s Blood.

Musically, OSI are extremely diverse, with Matheos able to provide both crunching riffs and mellow arpeggios to sit aside Moore’s light electronica influences. Sadly Moore’s vocals let the music down, as he too often falls into repetitive droning whispers and is unable to make the most of the superb musical platform beneath him. That being said OSI are still worth listening to, however you can’t help feeling this project could have been so much more with a wiser vocalist selection; guest contributions should never overshadow the permanent members.

The Magnificent: Steven Wilson

I was debating whether or not to use Steven Wilson as an example here, because initially his solo albums were intended to be just that; solo. However signs of a shift towards a proper band were beginning to show with his second release Grace for Drowning and eventually, on his third album, The Raven That Refused to Sing, Wilson was backed by a complete band which comprised of Marco Minnemann, Guthrie Govan, Nick Beggs, Adam Holzman and Theo Travis, all of whom are considered virtuosi of their respective instruments.

Regardless of whether or not you want to define Steven Wilson and his band as a supergroup, the music created by Wilson and then played by the group, manages to find a good contrast between exuberant musicianship and interesting song structures. Having such skilled musicians allows Wilson to write freely and produce tracks which his previous bands and collaborations would have struggled to pull off, meaning this supergroup is a medium for some of the best music any of the six have ever created. You may be able to doubt their place in the list as a supergroup, but you certainly can’t doubt their success.

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Ever since their debut album De-Loused In The Comatorium, The Mars Volta were a frontrunner in the progressive metal scene. However, after their sixth full length effort Noctourniquet, was released in 2012, founding duo Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala parted ways acrimoniously in early 2013, ending their long-standing musical relationship that began in 1993 with post-hardcore band At The Drive-In.

A couple of months ago rumours emerged that the pair had set aside their differences and were continuing on with new material for The Mars Volta.  It was revealed last week that the rumours of the duo working together were true, however it was on a new project entitled Antemasque, signifying the end of The Mars Volta for the foreseeable future. Antemasque is rounded off with drummer David Elitch and superstar bassist Flea; both of whom played as part of the ever-changing Mars Volta lineup.

The group’s first single, entitled 4AM, provided a first glimpse at their new musical direction. Like the change from At The Drive-In to The Mars Volta, Antemasque provides another new original sound for fans of the creative pair to enjoy. It’s immediate obvious that they have chosen a more accessible sound compared to the jazz-fusion and noise influenced progressive labyrinths that The Mars Volta became known for. Rodriguez-Lopez’s guitar work is only lightly overdriven, creating a crisp and clear backing for Bixler-Zavala’s ‘Geddy Lee-style’ vocals to command over. 4AM‘s chorus of “watching, waiting, black and white surveillance”  is perhaps the most memorable melody the pair have penned since the leading tracks from 2005’s Frances The Mute and marks a change in emphasis from the duo.

Antemasque is closest in style to At The Drive-In, taking some of the post-hardcore outfit’s energy and vastly simpler song structures than those utilised by The Mars Volta. This is shown with another new track, called People Forget, which caries a similar feel to 4AM; focusing more on melody and groove, than technical playing and effect wizardry. Antemasque have, at the time of writing, released three tracks, the third of which, Hangin In The Lurch, really allows Flea’s bass-work to feature in what is the most musically-busy of the three songs.

At this stage little is known about the intentions of Antemasque for the future. A record seems imminent, but with Flea announcing on twitter that he didn’t realise he was even in a proper band, let alone a new supergroup, the long-term future of the band doesn’t seem to have been decided upon yet. Whatever the musical duo end up settling on, the positive news is that they are back making music together.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this blog please like, comment and subscribe. The final installment of the supergroups series will follow next week.

Supergroups pt. 2

Welcome to the second installment of this three part blog series, in which I explore supergroups and the three categories in which they tend to fall into. Firstly, we have the (extremely rare) superb ones; where every member lives up to the excellence for which they are known. Most supergroups seem to fall into the ‘meh’ category; these are bands whose music, although satisfactory, wouldn’t grab your attention if it wasn’t for the high profile of its members. Lastly, we have the failures; the bands who forgot that to be a supergroup requires more than just a headline-grabbing lineup.

On Monday I looked at examples from the world of metal, but today I am moving onto rock, before rounding off the series next Friday with prog.

The Miserable: Zwan

Zwan are definitely contenders for being one of the worst supergroups in modern memory. Billy Corgan is known best for his role as grand dictator in 90s alternative rock band The Smashing Pumpkins. His falling outs and difficulty to work with is well documented and after The Smashing Pumpkins ended, his new project Zwan, which featured David Pajo, Matt Sweeney, Jimmy Chamberlin and later Paz Lenchantin, would be more of the same. However, this time it would be worse. Much worse.

Not only did their debut album completely flop, both commercially and critically, but the band ended in spectacular style, with Corgan stating his “detest” for his band mates. Zwan sounds similar to post-2000 Pumpkins, but inner turmoil, the lingering shadow of The Pumpkin’s breakup and the early 2000s nu metal music scene, meant the supergroup never made any impression and was quickly abandoned. Their only album, Mary Star of the Sea, was a watered down version of Pumpkins’ weaker songs, which didn’t let anyone else but Corgan shine. It’s a shame Zwan folded, because there was true potential hidden deep within that record and as we now know, great albums, like 2012’s Oceania, are still definitely within Corgan’s reaches.

The Meh: Angels & Airwaves

Angels & Airwaves was created in 2005 by Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge, after the pop-punk band went on hiatus. He quickly enlisted the help of Box Car Racer guitarist, David Kennedy, The Distillers bassist, Ryan Sinn and The Offspring drummer, Atom Willard. The lineup would then go on to change to include serial-band swapper and multi-instrumentalist Ilan Rubin on drums and 30 Second To Mars bassist, Matt Wachter.

Their debut album We Don’t Need To Whisper and follow-up I-Empire combined space rock and ambient influences, to produce tracks that bordered on art-rock. DeLonge and co. managed to pull-off the ambitious sound and despite many songs coming off as insincere (see Everything’s Magic), the results were fairly impressive for the four-piece that critics had initially laughed-off.

However, it all went down hill when they returned to the studio to produce Love. The double album that aimed to be a grandiose concept record and that promised Pink Floyd-esque moments, unfortunately came out sounding like a space-themed pop-punk record that lacked creativity. Suddenly the band had managed to rack up a discography that was now tipping the scales towards ‘disappointing’ and all the promise of their initial albums ultimately stopped there.

The Magnificent: A Perfect Circle

A Perfect Circle was created in 1999 by guitarist Billy Howerdel and Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan. The rest of the band would become a revolving door of well-known and session musicians, including Paz Lenchantin, James Iha, Troy Van Leeuwen, Tim Alexander, Josh Freese and Jeordie White. The challenge was always going to be handling Keenan’s instantly recognisable vocals, so that A Perfect Circle was kept distinct from Tool, but Howerdel’s supreme art-rock compositions meant all comparisons quickly vanished. The results were so fresh and surprising, that it caught everyone off-guard and even though the band have only released two studio albums of original compositions (their third album eMOTIVe was a collection of war inspired covers), and have only released one new track in the last decade, A Perfect Circle remain one of the most original and successful rock supergroups in recent history.

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Supergroups pt. 1

Supergroups seem to fall into three categories. Firstly we have the superb ones, where every member lives up to the excellence for which they are known, unfortunately these bands seem to be extremely rare. Most supergroups seem to fall into the ‘meh’ category; these are bands whose music, although satisfactory, wouldn’t grab your attention if it wasn’t for the high profile of its members. Lastly we have the failures; the bands who forgot that to be a supergroup requires more than just a headline-grabbing lineup.

In this, the first in a series of 3 blogs, I will look at a prime example of each type of supergroup from the world of metal, before moving onto rock and prog in the following installments.

The Miserable: Hellyeah

In 2006 Mudvayne duo Chad Gray and Greg Tribbett joined forces with Nothingface guitarist Tom Maxwell, drummer Vinnie Paul, of Pantera fame and (short-lived) bassist Jerry Montano, to form metal supergroup Hellyeah. Their debut was a solid attempt at groove metal, filled with whiskey-soaked riffs and enraged vocals, but failed to highlight the musicianship of the five-piece. Stampede followed in 2010 and was more of the same; a few gems hidden beneath a collection of fairly-average metal tracks.

It wasn’t until their third attempt, Band of Brothers, that they earned this place on the list. This release played like a self-parody, with cheap vocals that talked of alcohol, aggression and band brotherhood, riffs stolen straight from Pantera and ultimately a lack of creative ideas that had been affecting their work from day one. The inspiration for this blog came with the announcement of a fourth record and the premiere of two new tracks that once again fail to live up to what a Mudvayne-Nothingface-Pantera collaboration should be.

The Meh: Adrenaline Mob

When Mike Portnoy and Russell Allen, from progressive metal titans Dream Theater and Symphony X respectively, came together with an extremely talented guitarist in the form of Mike Orlando, the results should have been stupendous. However, as their first lead single summed up quite nicely, the results were decidedly Indifferent. Their first two albums Omerta and Men of Honor are littered with great pieces of guitar work (like the pinch harmonics in Psychosane), as well as Allen’s trademark powerful vocals, but sadly they rarely seem to coexist. It’s a shame that this band’s true potential hasn’t been met, but with a constantly evolving lineup (three out, two in, including the departure of Portnoy), Adrenaline Mob aren’t a full-gone conclusion just yet.

The Magnificent: Down

Down shows Hellyeah just what a Pantera supergroup should be and that southern-tinged metal doesn’t have to be all about cries of “Booze!”. Down was formed in 1991 when Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo came together with Crowbar duo Kirk Windstein and Todd Strange, Corrosion of Conformity guitarist Pepper Keenan and Eyehategod drummer Jimmy Bower. Their debut album Nola, is an hour of supreme sludge/stoner metal and although nearly twenty years old, it is still one of best modern metal albums.

Unfortunately 2002’s Down II: A Bustle In Your Hedgerow (notice the Led Zeppelin reference) didn’t quite have the same effect as their first record, but all was corrected when the supremely focused Down III: Over the Under was released five years later. Down are currently in the process of releasing a string of EPs; the first of which, The Purple EP, is a raw and dark effort, showing that the five-piece are still at the pinnacle of the metal world.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this week’s blog, please like, comment and subscribe. I hope you like RockAtlantic’s new look! Part 2 should be up on Friday!

The Opeth Debate

Well here it is: RockAtlantic is one year old today (hence it being a day late)! Before I start writing today’s blog I would like to say a quick thank you for everyone’s continuing support – it truly is appreciated.

Today I want to talk about a subject that has recently re-emerged in the metal world. Opeth announced earlier this month that recording for their eleventh studio album had finished and that they were aiming for a June release for the as-of-yet untitled record. The question on every fan’s mind though was ‘would it be heavier than previous effort Heritage?’

However, in my opinion that’s the wrong question to ask. What everyone should be concerned about is whether it will be more focused than its predecessor.

Before I explain my argument, first I will give a bit of background to the story. Opeth are a Swedish, progressive metal band that owe much of their success to a certain Mr. S. Wilson. Although they had already established themselves as a very competent progressive metal band with the release of four studio albums, it wasn’t until Steven Wilson provided his creative input into their fifth effort, did they really gain the following and recognition they deserved. The album in question, Blackwater Park, acted as a catalyst for their career, pushing Opeth from a homegrown talent into the international metal icons they are today.

From there, they produced the double album Deliverance/Damnation (which was later split into two releases), in which each disc was a world away from the other; one was a traditional (if not heavier) Opeth record, whilst the other played around with soft textures and acoustic guitars. From there they joined Roadrunner Records and released a further two albums, both with a slightly different feel, but neither stepping too far away from their mix of death metal and mellow interconnecting passages. It is now where we reach Heritage.

Heritage was a complete curve-ball, because although fans had heard the softer side of the band on Damnation, the band had never released an album without death growls or their signature monolithic guitar riffs as a stand alone record. Heritage was exactly what it said on the cover; an album exploring the 70s progressive music that inspired Akerfeldt and many of his contemporaries.

On a song-to-song basis, Heritage hits the mark. Tracks like Slither and I Feel the Dark are excellent and are on par with the best from their discography. However, when the album came together as a whole, the flow and cohesiveness that was expected from a band who created Still Life, was nowhere to be seen. I’m not talking about the disjointedness experienced on b-side and rarities collections, rather the feeling of emptiness, of being unfulfilled; like someone told you a joke but you didn’t quite get the punchline.

This is not to say I don’t like the album. Heritage is a very good effort; one that most progressive rock bands would be proud to release, but when you compare it to their previous efforts, you can’t help but feel a little disappointed. The reason why I believe it’s an issue of focus, not heaviness, is that even if the songs had been adapted into Opeth’s normal style it wouldn’t have made any difference. Heritage plays as a tribute album to the records of Akerfeldt’s younger years and hence is immediately flawed; there’s nothing new to be found on the disc, just a reworking of old ideas to create a solid, but ultimately unspectacular album.

With the 70s inspired project out of the way, Akerfeldt has announced that this upcoming album is more varied and features some heavier material, as well as a greater emphasis on melodies. Again, Akerfeldt has announced there will be no death growls or guttural screams, but the initial response and descriptions sound promising; all evidence is leading me to believe this will be a proper Opeth record, rather than a collection of inspirations and ideas somewhat awkwardly amalgamated. Only time will tell though.

Recommended Opeth:

  1. Blackwater Park from Blackwater Park
  2. Atonement from Ghost Reveries
  3. The Lotus Eater from Watershed
  4. White Cluster from Still Life
  5. Deliverance from Deliverance

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