Review: Clutch – Psychic Warfare

Clutch’s tenth studio album, Earth Rocker, was critically acclaimed and deservedly so. The four piece from Maryland had fallen upon a magic formula by streamlining their songs, ditching the nonsense and getting straight to the business in hand: rock. Album number eleven therefore had a significant amount of pressure on it; could Clutch repeat or even better the successes of its predecessor?

Clutch - Psychic Warfare (ultimateclassicrock.com)

Clutch – Psychic Warfare (ultimateclassicrock.com)

The simple answer is “yes”, they’ve released another blinder of a record. Psychic Warfare comes close to being an Earth Rocker 2, keeping the take-no-prisoners attitude, but introducing enough new ideas for the record to stand on its own merits.

After a false start with the pointless intro track, The Affidavit, Clutch accelerate off the line with the high tempo of X-ray Visions acting as cinematic wheel-spin. Vocalist Neil Fallon waits only two seconds before blasting his thick southern-tinged voice down the microphone, which when combined with the palm-muted guitar and crashing cymbals, makes for a high-octane affair, which you can’t help but nod your head to whilst making aggressive facial expressions. Half-way through a blues inspired solo kicks in, before giving way to Fallon introducing his band mates via their signs of the zodiac. If there were any doubts that Clutch wouldn’t be able to deliver, then X-ray Visions quickly banishes these worries.

It’s a similar story across the record. The trio of Firebirds, Sucker for the Witch and Noble Savage are attitude-fueled numbers, that manage to combine Fallon’s charismatic lyrics with heavy riffing and several moments of pure venom. The intriguingly titled Behold the Colossus has a looser feel to it, letting foot-tapping rhythms take hold as the song winds through lighter and darker moments.

Despite being an inherently heavy record, there are several other interesting elements present across the album. A Quick Death in Texas features a lovely, lightly overdriven, loose riff that keeps the southern-inspired song thrumming. Your Love is Incarceration has a funky feel to it, swinging through its verses and completed by a cowbell cameo. Our Lady of Electric Light comes close to being branded a ballad and provides some respite in the middle of the album, flowing in from the gentle, if a little underwhelming instrumental, Doom Saloon.

Unusually two of the best cuts from the album come at the record’s conclusion. Decapitation Blues is vintage stoner rock that brings gigantically thick riffs, whilst the album closer, Son of Virginia, takes time to grow from a sparse blues twang into a full on cataclysm of heavy guitars and thumping drums.

Psychic Warfare does well not to be a carbon copy of Earth Rocker, but also does well not to stray too far away from what made its predecessor great. The same basic formula of high-octane, blues-inspired stoner rock permeates the record, but unlike some formulaic acts, such as AC/DC, each track has distinct characteristics and inspired ideas, helped in part by Fallon’s fantastically creative lyrics. Nearly twenty-five years into their career, Clutch seem like they are only just getting going.

Overall: 8/10

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James

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Review: Tesseract – Polaris

With original* vocalist Dan Tompkins rejoining the band for their third full length effort Polaris, the British djent pioneers had to once again prove themselves in a highly saturated and often rigid genre. Polaris debuts two years after the highly impressive Altered State, which saw the band’s fifth vocalist, Ashe O’Hara, transition the band away from heavier vocals and towards a more melodic and atmospheric sound.

Tesseract - 'Polaris' image from Wikipedia

Tesseract – ‘Polaris’ image from Wikipedia

From the opening heavy twang of Dystopia to the closing piano moments of Seven Names, Tesseract show their intent to reinvigorate the djent genre by demonstrating their ambition to evolve into a truly progressive band. Hexes represents both of these sides, growing like a movie soundtrack from a sombre vocal-led intro with sustaining bass notes and a great surround of sound, before the hard-hitting djent attack takes over. Seven Names takes this one step further; suppressing djent temptations with post-progressive atmospheres for the most part.

However, there are tracks that just stick very closely to the standard djent sound. Survival is vintage Tesseract with beautiful delayed guitars giving way to bouncing riffs and powerful vocals, whilst the simple structure of Dystopia uses dynamics to create depth within the piece, chopping up bouncing rhythms with soft atmospheres and sparse piano. Messenger also brings the heaviness and the djent passages, cramming riffery, chord stabs and an assortment of vocals into just three and a half minutes; the shortest cut on the record.

Juxtaposing this track is Tourniquet, which takes several minutes to build from its gentle beginnings, blossoming into a truly magical vocal performance from Tompkins; his voice soaring above layered guitars. O’Hara set the standard of melodic vocals very high on Polaris’ predecessor, but Tompkins has managed to surpass this standard, whilst showing off his wide range of vocal styles. The hard-to-define and constantly changing Utopia (the highlight of which is a very inventive, almost-unplugged djent passage) has aggressive nu metal style vocals in its outro as well as a spine-tingling wail half way through, which is also replicated on Phoenix. Tompkins gets to excercise his screamed vocals only once on Polaris; for a couple of lines at the end of Cages, which takes five minutes to evolve from soft atmospheres into its harsh conclusion.

Polaris is a record born out of invention, with almost every track bringing new ideas into the progressive diction of Tesseract’s music, to a point where the heavily djent-focussed songs of their debut, One, sound like a different band altogether. Although Tesseract will still undoubtedly be labelled as ‘djent’, Polaris is evidence of the band’s beginnings as a truly progressive group; able to incorporate the addictive twang and complex rhythms of the djent genre into an ambitious and highly atmospheric structure.

Overall: 8/10

*Dan Tompkins performed on their debut album, but two different vocalists preceded him between 2004 and 2009.

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Review: Riverside – Love, Fear & The Time Machine

Love, Fear and the Time Machine (LF&TTM from here onward) is the sixth studio album from Polish progressive rock band Riverside. Since forming in 2001, the Polish band have developed a distinct brand of progressive music by mixing the soft themes of post-progressive rock with traditional hard rock and metal riffs, and have gained popularity through comparisons to British contemporaries Porcupine Tree.

Riverside - 'Love, Fear and the Time Machine' Image from Inside Out Music

Riverside – ‘Love, Fear and the Time Machine’ Image from Inside Out Music

However, LF&TTM makes a significant detour away from this style, by dropping much of the heavier elements, in order to develop an atmospheric sound that fits in more with the Kscope label (Anathema, Steven Wilson, The Pineapple Thief) than their own label, Inside Out (Transatlantic, Neal Morse, Steve Hackett).

Proceedings are kicked off with Lost, which grows from its initial swelling organ intro into a sea of floating keyboards and guitars, setting the musical tone for the record. However the most notable aspect of Lost is its extremely catchy chorus, with vocalist Mariusz Duda wasting no time in making you crave a repeat listen. This trend is continued throughout the record, with the most infectious hook occurring in the suitably titled #Addicted, which discusses social media’s affect on society within an immensely enjoyable alternative rock format.

This alternative rock feel is replicated in Under the Pillow, which opens with several clean guitar verses before developing into a more progressive style with plenty of guitar licks and organ chirps, in addition to an instrumental closing passage.

Despite being an atmospheric record, there are still plenty of progressive moments to delve into. Caterpillar and the Barbed Wire takes it time to grow into a butterfly, but is incredibly rewarding after repeat listens; its minute details blossoming into life. At the heart of the record is the most traditionally-progressive track, Saturate Me, with its snaking guitar riffs, circling keyboards, contrasting light and dark passages and vocals that don’t appear until beyond the two minute mark.The final progressive piece on the album, Towards the Blue Horizon, has humble acoustic and piano beginnings, but explodes into hard rock riffs and bleak atmospheres before its eight minute run time elapses.

LF&TTM also explores the softer side of Riverside, not just through its atmospheric nature, but within three clean/acoustic-led numbers. Time Travellers is the most effective of the three, with its gorgeously infectious chorus and stripped-back sound. It is accompanied by Found; a dreamy track that floats through rich atmosphere and gentle piano melodies, and the three minute Afloat, which reminds heavily of Anathema due to the gentle acoustic riffs and angelic vocals that combine to create an overwhelming sense of melancholy.

However, it is Steven Wilson that this record has more similarities to. Discard Your Fear could easily be from Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet record, with its dark atmospheres, prominent bass-line and unique keyboard sound. Meanwhile the guitar riff at the five minute mark from Towards the Blue Horizon comes too close to sounding like a background moment from Porcupine Tree’s Halo and the guitar arpeggio introduction to Found briefly flirts with Steven Wilson’s Harmony Korine. This being said, these moments are a genuine result of Riverside’s post-progressive song writing, rather than an actual attempt to plagiarise.

LF&TTM is a solid first attempt at breaking into the increasingly popular post-progressive/atmospheric genre. However, Riverside have not abandoned their hard rock sound completely and by leaving some of these influences in, they have created a very unique album that blends many different aspects of progressive music together, covering everything from the gentle guitar tones of David Gilmour, to the oppressive atmospheres of Opeth. Whilst this change in direction won’t please everyone, no can deny that Riverside have both the songwriting and the technical ability to pull off such an ambitious album.

Overall: 8/10

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IMPORTANT NEWS: Posts may become less frequent from now on as I venture out into the real world of work from being a student – I will endeavour to post when I can! Thank you for reading!

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James

Review: Disturbed – Immortalized

It’s rare to find a band that correctly identifies when their own music has lost it’s edge and rarer still when said band actively does something about it. Disturbed are one such example, as following their distinctly average fifth studio album Asylum, which felt uninspired and jaded, the band chose to go on a lengthy hiatus to recharge and engage with other projects. Five years on from Asylum and Disturbed are back with their sixth studio album Immortalized, which intended to breathe some new life into the quartet from Illinois.

As soon as the lead guitar of introductory track, The Eye Of The Storm, subsides, it seems Disturbed are straight back to business, with the drop-tuned swagger of Dan Donegan’s guitar and David Draiman’s signature percussive roar in Immortalized. This is continued and improved upon in The Vengeful One, as the band add contrast to their heaviness with a mellow pre-chorus.

However, it quickly becomes obvious that Immortalized is a for-the-fans-only album. The band have tried to incorporate outside influences into their traditionally very strict formula, such as the whammy effect at the end of the pop-inspired Open Your Eyes or the swelling synths that introduce You’re Mine. However, these small bits and pieces on their own aren’t enough to attract new fans and serve purely as a way to add the occasional spice to the long-standing Disturbed formula.

Whilst this helps to add some variety to proceedings, other songs are just hard to place, like The Light, which tries its best to be a ballad, but an off-putting drum beat, an out-of-place vocal style and a short-lived burst into life make the song too confused to be successful. Meanwhile What Are You Waiting For is just painful, as Draiman tries to liven up an otherwise bland chug-fest with a cheesy pop hook that might as well have come from ABBA Gold.

Unfortunately by this point in the record all memories of the promising start is long gone. Who and Save Our Last Goodbye are both equally forgettable, with interchangeable percussive verses, but they reign superior over the following track Fire It Up. If there was ever a way to make the drug lifestyle that often surrounds rock bands uncool, then perhaps this song is the answer. Musically Fire It Up actually stands out from most of the copycat riffing present on the album, as it bounces around Peter Wengren’s groove, but lyrically it reaches new lows, with the forty-two year old Draiman detailing how taking “a puff from the leaves of the devil” gives him “illumination“, “inspiration“, “relaxation” and of course “rejuvenation“.

The record manages to pull itself together for the finish with a heartfelt, if a little bizarre, cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence and two more-inspired Disturbed cuts. Never Wrong brings back the darker sound Disturbed are known for, whilst Who Taught You How To Hate possesses the menace that disappeared from the middle of the record.

Immortalized was not supposed to be a complete re-invention of Disturbed, but it was supposed to feel inspired and fresh. However, Immortalized failed to capture the spirit of Disturbed; managing only to saturate it. There are several moments where the band capture something inspired, however it is too often let down by indistinct riffing and poor lyrics – two signs that a band have run out of ideas. I originally wrote that this might be a for-the-fans-only record, but sadly I don’t even think it qualifies as that.

Overall: 4/10

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James

Introducing: David Maxim Micic

For long term readers of my music blog, you might remember I introduced you to an upcoming female-fronted djent band called Destiny Potato about two years ago. Since then the Serbian progressive band have gone on to release their debut full length album, LUN, last year, but haven’t really broken through to mainstream attention as of yet. However, there is a success story to come from the Potato camp and that is the emergence of their guitarist’s solo career.

As well as being an accomplished guitar player, David Maxim Micic is also musically fluent on the keyboard and is trained very highly in composition, graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Micic is yet to release a full length album, instead he opts to release his creations via a series of EPs. His fifth and latest EP, entitled ECO, was released yesterday (16/08/15) and once again it infuses his progressive ambitions with his virtuoso abilities, in easily digestible, yet impressive compositions.

ECO is the second half of a small series entitled Ego & Eco, which follows on from the Bilo series he began in 2011, which has so far accrued three efforts. ECO, however, is a notably more relaxed effort, letting gentle melodies flow from his strings and keys, such as the hypnotising and unconventional notes of 500 Seconds Before Sunset and the beautiful, orchestrated intro piece Universe In A Crayon.

Three of ECO‘s six tracks (Satellite, The Flock, Stardust) also feature guest vocalists and although they are not particularly needed, they do provide another vertex of intrigue to Micic’s music. All three performances are well considered and are careful not to detract from the musical foundation, but it’s Miyoki’s emotionally powerful vocals on top of the heavily percussive Stardust that rises to the top.

Contrast this album with EGO, which was released last month and you find a big difference. EGO was intentionally heavier and more guitar-focused, coming through four longer and more progressive songs.

His Bilo efforts are also worthy of your time. Which each successive EP his ambition and skills developed, culminating in Bilo 3.0 which was the first of his EPs to truly grab my attention back in late 2013. The Bilo series amalgamate the styles portrayed within the EGO & ECO records, combining the beautiful melodies of ECO with the djent work of EGO. However, don’t let the djent style put you off, because underneath (and most of the times on top of) the poly-rhythms and twanging strings lies a superb musical display, that at times, is simply breathtaking.

To discover more of his superb music please visit his bandcamp: https://davidmaximmicic.bandcamp.com/album/eco

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James

I don’t ‘get’ Ghost

From the outside it seems that Swedish heavy metal band Ghost (formerly known as Ghost B.C. in the US due to legal reasons) have a solid foundation for success.

I, like many of their cult-like fans, were drawn towards the band for their unusual stage presence and the mystery which surrounds the band as a result. The five instrumentalists in the band are simply referred to as Nameless Ghouls and on stage they all wear the same silver masks and hooded robes. Meanwhile their lead singer, who is known as Papa Emeritus*, is dressed as a satanic pope, using skull face paint and more decorative dress.

Despite Ghost’s wishes for anonymity, it is widely rumoured that Swedish musician Tobias Forge is Papa Emeritus and that Dave Grohl has made guest appearances on stage. However, apart from this, the band member’s identities remain a secret, leaving a shroud of mystery over the band, which in today’s digital age is rarity. The last mainstream band to accomplish this was Slipknot, but over time side projects and the increased media scrutiny that comes with success, has led to every band member becoming unveiled, including the extremely media-shy Craig Jones.

Having such a strong image and an accompanying intrigue factor has proved to be a catalyst for their success, as the brand gets fans on board before they even listen to their music. However, here in lies the problem for me: Ghost’s music is too bland in comparison to their intimidating satanic look.

With their name, their look, their mystery and their satanic links, I fully expected the band to be re-inventors of the metal genre with a powerful sound, like Slipknot were in 1999. Instead Ghost produce middle-of-the-road, traditional heavy metal, with average tempos, a haze of vintage keyboards and melodic pop vocals. The only hint of their image in their music is the satanic lyrics and the odd heavy riff, which soon subsides into organs, danceable drum beats and memorable melodies – hardly the music of the devil!

This is not to say their songwriting isn’t good. Jigolo Har Meggido is a catchy classic rock number that fuses the psychedelic rock of the ’60s with the progressive rock of the ’70s, whilst Year Zero layers choral vocals over a galloping riff to great effect. But despite the focused writing and the diverse influences on show, I can’t help myself wanting more. Listening to their second album Infestissumam, I am waiting for the band to unleash their instruments; to crank up their amps, but Ghost seem happy to cruise by, recycling ideas from decades gone by. I feel the band are just missing a sense of urgency from proceedings; a bit of adrenaline or octane perhaps.

Ghost’s third full-length effort, Meliora, is due next week and despite my reservations, I am interested to see what direction the band have taken. The first single Cirice has embraced heavier riffery, but the same flowery vocals remain, however this is corrected with the second single, From the Pinnacle to the Pit, which adds the odd menacing vocal and a rumbling bass riff to the mix – giving me reason to nod my head.

This is not supposed to be a negative blog post, after all Ghost are a big part of today’s metal scene and it would be silly for me to discount their success. There are many elements of their music to rave about, but when I listen to their music I am waiting for it to spark into life; to reach full vibrancy. I am hopeful that they will convince me one day; that I will suddenly ‘get’ them, but until they do, I’m afraid they remain in a bizarre no-man’s-land between pop, classic rock and metal that doesn’t really appeal to me.

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*Papa Emeritus III is now used to reflect their third studio album.

James

Review: BTBAM – Coma Ecliptic

Like so many other progressive bands, in the tale of the tortoise and the hare, Between The Buried And Me (BTBAM) definitely take on the role of the tortoise. With every album the band seem to grow in both ability and ambition, taking them from a very understated beginning, to a point now where they are producing some of the most unique progressive metal within the mainstream eye.

BTBAM - Coma Ecliptic (image from metalblade.com)

Between The Buried And Me – Coma Ecliptic (image from metalblade.com)

BTBAM’s seventh studio album, Coma Ecliptic, was released last month and once again the band have managed to push their songwriting even further to ensure their continual rise to the peak of progressive music. Coma Ecliptic is a musical feast, featuring the expected complex interplay between guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, taking the ideas of Dream Theater and injecting them with even more ferocity and pace.

However, Coma Ecliptic is arguably the most mature record BTBAM have recorded to date. There is a notable step away from the once-dominant death metal elements, allowing the full extent of their progressive side to be heard. The biggest change on this front is the reduction of death metal screams provided by vocalist Tommy Giles Rogers, as he has begun to experiment with his clean voice. On Dim Ignition Rogers utilises a bizarre hoarse drone vocal technique, whilst the incredibly catchy verses of The Ectopic Stroll experiment with a maddened scat-style, taking on a character from the concept that permeates the record.

However it’s not just the vocals that are showcasing creativity. Musically Coma Ecliptic is very diverse, with industrial-inspired chopped synths on Dim Ignition, sharp stabs of orchestral melody on Turn on the Darkness, schizophrenic piano playing on The Ectopic Stroll and a 1970s prog styled organ interlude on Memory Palace, all adding to their unique progressive metal sound.

Both of these elements help to create a very accessible record. Although at eight minutes long, Rapid Calm is the most mainstream-appealing song on the record, with a central keyboard melody, predominately clean singing and a supremely addictive outro. Similarly Memory Palace is more concerned with guitar riffs and progressive ideas than death metal complexity, keeping it very much accessible despite its ten minute run time.

BTBAM have managed to create an album that caters for a whole spectrum of fans. There is enough death metal elements, like the frantic styling of Famine Wolf, to please fans of old, but also the introduction of more clean sections and progressive bombast across the record, like those throughout Option Oblivion, will appeal to a new kind of fan; one who will go back through their discography picking out tracks like Informal Gluttony for its melodic choruses and Bloom for its experimentation and bizarre nature. Occasionally there are tracks that achieve all three criteria, like The Coma Machine and King Redeem / Queen Serene. The former is a sprawling epic, whilst the latter juxtaposes a pristine acoustic first half with a bellowing second half (that features a fantastic musical hook), all played out over a twisting seven minute arrangement.

Like previous releases Coma Ecliptic is a concept record and, like previous releases, it is notoriously hard to follow, especially during the screamed sections. However, this doesn’t subtract from the overall experience, as the music is the real foundation of the concept and after seventy minutes of full-frontal progressive metal you do feel like you’ve been on a dream-like journey; the opening keyboard lines of intro Node seem like a distant memory as the closing solos of outro Life in Velvet fade away. Overall the sense of time and progression is well executed, despite not quite understanding why the word velvet appears quite so frequently.

BTBAM have come a long way since their self-titled debut in 2002. Although there were signs on predecessor The Parallax II: The Future Sequence, Coma Ecliptic is finally the record which will gain them plaudits for their progressive music outside of the death metal community. Previously their experimentation has been too tightly confined within their death metal brand to be truly accessible to the wider prog fan, but I feel if there was ever an album to get those fans on board, it would be their highly creative and superbly musical seventh studio album.

Overall: 9/10

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James