Anathema – Live

Last night Anathema’s UK leg of their Satellites Over Europe tour came to an end with a sold-out Southampton show. The notoriously cramped and sweaty Talking Heads venue was the perfect place to play an intimate gig that would conclude a fantastic year for the band in the UK.

Support act, Mother’s Cake, who hail from Austria, opened the show with a high octane performance. My first impressions were of a band channeling the aggression of Rage Against The Machine with the progressive chaos of The Mars Volta, with a healthy portion of early Red Hot Chili Peppers funk mixed in for good measure. Vocalist and guitarist Yves Krismer was on top form, bellowing out his gritty vocals and sweeping effortlessly through his blues inspired leads. However, it was the combination of Jan Haubels’ manic drumming and Benedikt Trenkwalder’s intense slap bass that provided their set with energy, especially during their final song, where Trenkwalder’s incredible technique made sure everyone’s focus was on the bass player for once.

[Warning : Set-list Spoilers]

Half an hour later, Anathema took to the stage to begin their set with the beautiful first two parts of The Lost Song, mirroring the beginning of their latest album, Distant Satellites. For this tour new member Daniel Cardoso is behind the drum kit, whilst previous drummer, John Douglas, has been moved to a custom percussion style set-up, providing rhythmic depth to the lush orchestration which sadly, but understandably, could only be replicated via the use of recordings.

Anathema during 'The Lost Song'

Anathema during ‘The Lost Song’

Anathema then moved into Weather Systems‘ dual-part opener, Untouchable, which was reproduced fantastically and had the crowd bellowing out its heart-felt lyrics. Female vocalist, Lee Douglas, really shone within the song’s second part, where her gorgeous vocals soar above the gentle piano melody and chord strumming. Anathema then continued to go back through their albums, choosing to play Dreaming Light from We’re here Because We’re Here, which let Vincent Cavanagh’s Scouse-tinged vocals float effortless above the ever increasing depth of sound beneath.

Lee Douglas performing during 'Untouchable Part 2'

Lee Douglas performing during ‘Untouchable Part 2’

It was then time for Daniel Cavanagh to shine as the band returned to their new album to play the trilogy of Ariel, The Lost Song Part 3 and Anathema, which was dedicated to all the hard work their road crew do. Beginning with that gorgeous duet between Daniel Cavanagh’s soft piano and Lee Douglas’ serene vocals, Ariel soon evolves, until Daniel once again could shine with the indulgent sustain guitar lead that concludes the song. Both The Lost Song Part 3 and Anathema were well received too, echoing the continued success of their brand of emotional progressive rock.

The end of their set was then concluded by three very different tracks from different albums, showcasing their wide range of abilities. The Beginning and The End showed just how versatile the band are, with John Douglas returning to the kit and Cardoso moving across to piano duties. Next came Universal, which I initially thought the band would struggle to replicate in the small venue due to its exuberant orchestral nature, yet surprisingly the band pulled it off superbly; a great credit to the talent and effort every member puts in live. Finally, the ‘Daft Punk’-styled Closer rounded off the main set and once again showed just how good Anathema are at recreating the sound they achieve on records.

The encore was introduced by the musical interlude Firelight, which then led straight into the dreamy Distant Satellites just as on the album. This was followed up by Lee Douglas’ best performance of the night; a chilling rendition of A Natural Disaster, which allowed Douglas to show off her amazing voice. Finally the encore was rounded off with Take Shelter from the new album and Fragile Dreams; the only track to be played that was not from their last four releases.

Anathema put on a fantastic show and completely outplayed the small venue. They had great audience interaction, taking time to talk to the fans and Vincent even jumped into the crowd to help deal with an audience member who fainted during the encore. Anathema now start the mainland Europe part of their tour, playing almost every night until mid-way through November. If you get the chance now or in the future to see the six-piece I would most definitely recommend it.

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Pineapple Thief – Magnolia

Magnolia is the tenth studio album (arguably ninth depending how you categorise 2006’s What We Have Sown) by sometimes progressive, always indie, rock band The Pineapple Thief. Although switching to the Kscope label in 2008 to join peers Anathema, Steven Wilson and North Atlantic Oscillation helped boost their fan base, the band from Somerset continue to exist well under the radar. Since 2010’s Someone Here Is Missing, which was firmly rooted in hard rock, The Pineapple Thief have been trying to integrate these influences into their often mellow arrangements.

Magnolia achieves just this; finding the balance between sonic beauty and the adrenaline of distorted guitars and loud drums. In fact many tracks show both of these sides within their play time. Breathe clatters through its intro and chorus with a menace rarely heard from singer Bruce Soord, whilst its verses dance around reverberating chords. The same can be said with Sense of Fear, where its droning verse contrasts heavily with a tumultuous intro that builds from a fuzz guitar riff into powerful chords and a soaring, effect-tampered lead.

In an effort to achieve this balance, Soord has introduced strings heavily into his music, emulating his Kscope contemporaries Anathema. Don’t Tell Me is a symphony of cataclysmic emotion featuring string swells that send shivers up your spine. The deep rasp of cellos and the plod of a double bass focus Soord’s saddened vocals on Seasons Past and combine beautifully with keys and snare rolls, whilst strings provide weight to title track’s dream-like haze. The One You Left To Die begins as a standard alt rock track, but it is the string stabs and swells, as well as the incredible dynamics and ‘fake’ build ups, that transform this song into a magnificent, orchestral-like piece.

Despite a new emphasis on the heavier elements of rock, this record still presents tracks filled with melancholy that remind of their earlier records. From Me, which is the shortest track and possibly the saddest too, is a soundtrack for a rain-soaked movie, as stripped back piano chords combine with crying violins and Soord’s ‘Thom Yorke’-esque wail. Similarly, A Loneliness cycles through minor chords and anguished vocal refrains, marching the song towards its heart-breaking conclusion.

Perhaps where Soord manages to combine the two styles most powerfully is within openers Simple As That and Alone At Sea. The former is packed with vocal hooks that act to connect the oscillating guitar arpeggios of the subdued verses with the soaring guitar-driven chorus. Meanwhile, Alone At Sea lets the four-piece unleash their instruments during several bridge sections, before returning to the track’s gorgeous verse-chorus structure that is based around a pulsating riff and a vocal melody.

If 2012’s All The Wars showed the band growing and developing with this dual-pronged style, then Magnolia portrays a band who have blossomed into this format. Whilst there are no definitively progressive tracks on display here, the unique arrangements of rock, beauty and orchestral elements will provide a sense of familiarity with the genre, despite single tracks having more in common with standard pop or indie rock acts.

Overall: 10/10

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The Role of the Producer Part 4 – Linkin Park

The role of the producer within an album’s creation is often overlooked. Apart from performing their technical roles, producers are also an important source of guidance that can help a band achieve the sound they are aiming for. However, sometimes bands choose to self-produce their record, which, whilst an impressive display of talent, can lead to a reduction in quality control, as I aim to explore in today’s blog; the fourth installment of this five part series investigating the role of the producer.

After the success of Linkin Park’s first two records, Hybrid Theory and Meteora, they opted to change their nu metal sound and brought in Rick Rubin to oversee this transition. This decision propelled the five-piece towards mainstream rock success and saw the band evolve their sound through hard rock into electronica over three album cycles; Minutes to Midnight, A Thousand Suns and Living Things.

For their sixth studio album, The Hunting Party, the band chose to change musical direction by reverting to their metal routes and dropped Rubin to favour self-production, with the main duties falling to Mike Shinoda and Brad Delson. Unfortunately, this change didn’t prove to be successful, as production issues permeate the whole record. Whilst there are small technical faults, such as the guitars being overpowering, the main problem from self-production is the overall lack of quality control. Rick Rubin wouldn’t have allowed Bennington’s weak, often frail vocals to make it to the record. Likewise, Delson’s bedroom guitarist, wah-drenched leads that shout mediocrity wouldn’t have made the cut. The album also suffers from a lack of creativity; tracks like War and All For Nothing should have been scraped or saved for b-sides, rejected simply because they aren’t good enough for a band of Linkin Park’s caliber.

However, this is not just an attack on a record I don’t like. In the last part of this blog I briefly mentioned how Disturbed turned towards self-production for their fourth and fifth records, ditching producer Johnny K who led the band towards two consecutive number one albums. Their fourth effort  Indestructible was a brilliant record, seemingly showing the band were capable without an external producer. However, its successor, Asylum, was less successful as it suffered from quality control issues, which probably arose because unlike Indestructible, Johnny K’s guidance was no longer ringing in their ears.

Ultimately the shift from a producer to self-production is a massive risk. An external body present in the recording process is a tried and tested method, that allows the band to focus on the music, whilst the producer takes care of everything else, offering their input and encouraging the band to create the perfect record. Losing this crucial piece in the puzzle often leaves an album sounding unfocussed, uninspired and lacking the creativity and cohesiveness that a producer can provide.

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The Role of the Producer Part 3 – David Draiman

The role of the producer within an album’s creation is often overlooked. They can have a major influence on a band’s sound by altering the recording and mixing processes, aiding in songwriting and providing general feedback on a whole array of topics. Many of the top producers have small traits that grow to define them and make them easily identifiable, but sometimes this can grow out of control, as I aim to explore in today’s blog; the third installment of a new five part series investigating the role of the producer.

David Draiman is best known as the frontman of American metal band Disturbed., who were initially routed in nu metal but soon grew into their own distinctive sound, drawing influence from acts such as Iron Maiden and Queensryche. As well as being a major songwriter for the band, Draiman co-produced their five studio albums, alongside his fellow bandmates and external producer Johnny K (who only featured on their first three efforts).

After Disturbed announced their hiatus in 2011, Draiman turned his attention to other projects, including starting an industrial metal band entitled Device and undertaking production duties for Trivium’s sixth and latest album Vengeance Falls.

Upon the first listening of Vengeance Falls several things stand out. Firstly, the album is much more concise and focused than 2011’s epic, yet sometimes scattered attempt, In Waves. Secondly, Draiman has put considerable work into Matt Heafy’s vocals, resulting in a larger range and a noticeably fuller tone. In addition to this Heafy has praised Draiman’s input into creating the vocal melodies present on the album; a duty he was used to performing within Disturbed. Naturally, this complete vocal overhaul has left Heafy sounding very similar to the disturbed frontman on many parts of the record, especially during the powerful choruses of the album’s title track, as well as Strife‘s unusual verse sections and No Way To Heal‘s pre-chorus.

Whilst the guitars and rhythm section remain typically Trivium, Draiman has played around with the song arrangements, choosing to turn their often complex, borderline-progressive tracks, into a more traditional four-and-a-half minute, verse-chorus structure. Despite the high technicality and thrash elements remaining witihin their sound, the Trivium presented on Vengeance Falls is significantly different to their previous outings to warrant many fans feeling disappointed.

Draiman’s production is all about efficiency; its about condensing a track to the bare minimum, whilst focusing on large melodies and solid musicianship. Although I personally enjoy the styles found on both In Waves and Vengeance Falls, I can’t help feeling that this is an example of where a producer has molded a band into his own style, rather than using their skill set to enhance the band’s existing musical vision, and that to me is a shame, regardless of the quality of the output.

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Look out for Part 4 on Friday 19th September

The Role of the Producer Part 2 – Bob Rock

The role of the producer within an album’s creation is often overlooked. A producer is like a director; they need to guide the band towards the end product. However, some producers can become over-indulgent and start to hijack the musical direction, causing tension and conflict. It is this I aim to explore in today’s blog; the second installment of a new five part series investigating the role of the producer.

Perhaps the most extreme, and certainly most documented, case of this was during the recording sessions for Metallica’s self-titled effort, produced by Bob Rock.

Rock has produced many notable records, including Motley Crue’s Dr. Feelgood, Bon Jovi’s Keep The Faith and Lostprophets’ once hit, but now unspoken, third album Liberation Transmission. However, Metallica – Metallica is the album that will define his career; currently it’s Metallica’s highest selling; going 16x platinum in 2012, but the recording process had no resemblance to its positive reception.

Rock was brought on board for their fifth studio album, after Metallica were impressed by the sound achieved by Motley Crue on their aforementioned Dr. Feelgood record. He began his tenure by altering the band’s recording process, which involved bringing the members together as a unit and laying the track down live, as opposed to separately in different locations as had been used for their previous album …And Justice for All. Rock also wanted more from vocalist James Hetfield; first he suggested that Hetfield should take a more melodic approach to his singing, which was followed by a demand for better lyrics to be written.

The process came to a point where Rock’s vision for the band was causing massive conflict between the two parties and cracks began to appear. Guitarist Kirk Hammett, bassist Jason Newsted and drummer Lars Ulrich all entered divorces throughout this period, which would later be attributed to the negative atmosphere caused by Rock’s production. After Metallica was released the band announced they would never work with Rock again, which was echoed by a fans petition to remove Rock from Metallica’s future releases. However, despite the animosity towards him, the band continued to work with the esteemed producer throughout the 90s, with his final credit as producer being for 2003’s St. Anger.

The fact they continued working with Rock shows that sometimes being overbearing is what a band as big as Metallica needs. Rock knew that to produce their best album, he had to be prepared to rip the band apart and change how the band worked on a fundamental level. Once the band had progressed past the change and conflict, the brilliance of Rock’s production and guidance could finally be appreciated.

Other notable Metallica production woes:

  • …And Justice for All has a production story almost as controversial as Metallica, which involves a change of production personal (from Mike Clink of Appetite for Destruction-fame to Flemming Rasmussen) and a troubled mixing process resulting in a thin drum sound and the infamous inaudible bass section.
  • The final Bob Rock record St. Anger was heavily criticised for its stripped back, garage sound and solo-less, nu metal direction.
  • Several petitions were signed in an attempt to have Death Magnetic (produced by Rick Rubin) remixed, because of the over-compression of its dynamic range.

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Look out for Part 3 on Monday 15th September

 

The Role of the Producer Part 1 – Atticus Ross

The role of the producer within an album’s creation is often overlooked. The best producers are often the ones who you don’t realise are there; whose musical vision aligns perfectly with the band’s, so that the two parties become married and can bring out the best in each other. However, when this is not the case an album can go terribly wrong, as I aim to explore in today’s blog; the first installment of a new five part series investigating the role of the producer.

Atticus Ross is probably best known for his work with Trent Reznor in Nine Inch Nails (NIN). Ross and Reznor first worked together on NIN’s fourth album With Teeth, where Ross handled programming duties. This role was then extended to include production on all of the following NIN records to date, including last year’s Hesitation Marks. Ross’ most successful NIN work is undoubtedly the instrumental and experimental Ghosts I-IV, where his programming abilities and dark electronic influences permeate the record and fall perfectly into place amongst Reznor’s harsh industrial songwriting.

This working relationship has since extended over onto other projects too, including the extremely electronic side-project How To Destroy Angels and their work together on the movie soundtracks for The Social Network and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. These movie scores saw the pair receiving many plaudits (deservedly so), including an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Grammy; a trend they intend to continue with their latest offering: the Gone Girl soundtrack.

Reznor and Ross share a unique synergy, based around their complimentary electronic styles and their ability to bring the best out of each other; a feature of every great writing duo throughout history. However, away from this working relationship, Ross has been less successful.

Coheed & Cambria enlisted Ross’ production skills, along with Joe Barresi (Melvins, Queens of the Stone Age, Clutch), to work on their fifth studio effort Year of The Black Rainbow, in an effort to create a cinematic backdrop for the band’s next installment of their sci-fi progressive rock story. The band’s previous efforts had been full of texture and rich atmosphere, including orchestral elements and a multi-layered sound. Unfortunately, Ross’s over-indulgent production stifled the music, making many tracks one dimensional, whilst the guitars sounded cold and void of any emotion. It’s not surprising then, that for the following double album, The Afterman, the band dropped Ross, in order to return to Micheal Birnbaum and Chris Bittner, who produced their first three studio efforts.

Atticus Ross has also worked with nu metal giants Korn on their seventh and eighth studio albums See You on the Other Side and Untitled. On the former, he held songwriting duties in addition to his production role, which were both shared with the pop-centric production company The Matrix. Somehow, despite the many people involved, See You on the Other Side managed to stay focused. It is also brilliantly produced; the mix between Korn’s dark songwriting, Ross’ faint electronic influences and The Matrix’s leaner, more accessible songwriting approach turned out to be an inspired move.

However, when The Matrix were dropped early into Untitled’s recording process, the brilliance of the Korn-Ross partnership broke down. Untitled was not a cohesive collection of songs; there were some old-school Korn tracks with frantic lyrics and heavy guitars, but many got lost in unnecessary atmosphere, whilst others were clearly the ghosts of pop songs crafted by The Matrix. Ross was unable to guide Korn as successfully as he had managed previously, resulting in a record that plays aimlessly until its completion.

Atticus Ross is the perfect example of a producer needing to share the same musical ideologies as the artist. When he is alongside electronic-orientated artists he thrives, fitting in like the last piece of the puzzle, but when he is challenged with an artist looking beyond his electronic influences, Ross is unable to capture the same magic.

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Part 2 should be available on Friday 12th September

 

 

Opeth – Pale Communion Review

Choosing to ditch the death metal influences for 70s prog nostalgia, Opeth took a leap of faith with 2011’s Heritage, which divided their fan base like an Ozzy vs. Dio argument amongst Black Sabbath fans. Many were left aching for Mikael Akerfeldt’s Cookie Monster vocals and blamed the lack of metal influences for the often mixed reviews. However, as discussed in a previous post (https://rockatlantic.wordpress.com/2014/04/01/the-opeth-debate/) it was the lack of focus and cohesiveness that took away from what was ultimately a brave, admirable and correct change of musical direction from the Swedish group.

Since their magnum opus, Blackwater Park, was released in 2001, Opeth have been taking a steady route towards the fields of prog. The double album Deliverance/Damnation was a deep excavation into the soul of Opeth’s songwriting, where mellotrons and rich musical textures were unearthed. Ghost Reveries and Watershed continued this trend, with monstrous riffs being combined with beautiful melodies and progressive detours that channeled groups such as Yes and Genesis. Therefore Heritage was an obvious step to make, by finally letting the progressive ideas overpower the need to blast harmonic minor riffs through oceans of distortion; it was just a shame its execution didn’t match the ambition.

However, with their eleventh studio album (or “observation” as Opeth say), Pale Communion, Opeth have finally stumbled across the right balance between haunting metal and exquisite prog. Opener, Eternal Rains Will Come, showcases the combination perfectly within its first two minutes, allowing a jarring metal riff and a haunting keyboard progression (reminding of The Grand Conjuration) to flow into sparse keys and a delightfully soulful guitar lead. The track then grows back into life with rich vocals and several musical detours.

Part of Opeth’s transition into a progressive rock band is their full embrace of orchestral elements. Voice of Treason and Faith In Others are both notable for their string use, but use them for completely different results. The moody epic Voice of Treason uses the lower register of string instruments; cellos and bases, as well as some well-executed latin influences, to drive the verses forward with increasing intensity, which is molded by a gritty and menacing rhythm that will keep desk-drummers happy for weeks. As the track reaches its climax, the musical layers are suddenly pulled out from beneath the track, leaving just a Rhodes piano and Akerfeldt’s sorrowful lyrics to see the song to its conclusion. Faith In Others, however, has melancholy violins providing a backdrop to what is perhaps the darkest and most moving Opeth song to date and a near perfect way to close the record.

Fredrik Akesson’s lead playing is once again a delight to listen to and is sounding even more diverse than his first appearance on Watershed. Cusp of Eternity, a relatively straight-forward hard rock track, has a killer guitar solo that powers above a driving riff that will keep you nodding throughout the track’s five-and-a-half minute playtime. He’s performance on Moon Above, Sun Below is equally as impressive, as the album’s star song switches between contrasting styles almost as frequently as progressive compatriots Dream Theater do.

Elysian Woes, like Faith In Others, manages to create the bleak atmosphere Opeth are praised for, without the need of loud guitars, or much else for that matter. A simple acoustic chord progression drenched in Akerfeldt’s mellow voice and cleverly arranged keys, are enough to rival even the darkest moments found within the musically pitch-black album Deliverance, especially when he wails “I don’t want to bare my scars for you”.

The two biggest surprises of the record are the middle pairing of Goblin and River, which give listeners further insight into the songwriting influences Akerfeldt calls upon. Goblin is a grooving instrumental, that allows Joakim Svalberg’s keyboards to bounce between Martin Axenrot’s precession drumming and is a massive musical nod to the Italian prog band of the same name. River starts as a whimsical A.O.R. affair, featuring lyrics such as “when the bodies float on the river” that manage to sound almost poppy in nature. It is surprising then that this track evolves into another haunting piece that grows in intensity as its length increases.

Pale Communion is a record packed with progressive influences, but unlike its predecessor, it is packaged up in an eloquent way that allows each idea to fully blossom before others are introduced. This record also manages to be simultaneously heavy and beautiful, and is definitely Opeth’s darkest effort, which is probably due to the personal nature of the lyrics, a concept that is new to Akerfeldt’s writing. Any doubters of Opeth’s change in direction will surely be assured by this spellbinding effort; the Blackwater Park of their progressive rock era.

Overall: 9/10

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