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January 2007

Zeno: Runway To The Gods

Melodic Hard Rock
Rating: 4.0/5.0

I've come late to Zeno Roth; this is Mr. Roth's sixth work in more than the same years. Roth favors melodic hard rock and does extremely well in this genre. On this work he features the vocals of Michael Bormann, and exceptional and versatile vocalist. Mr. Roth is also a formidable instrumentalist and vocalist. In every song there is much to appreciate. If you are a regular visitor to these pages, you know I love good guitar work: Mr. Roth does not disappoint in any way. The title track is a fine example of his fret work; and Mr. Roth really rips it up on 'I Feel, I Live.' Both songs are premier examples of the creativity of composition and arrangement on this work.

Very rarely do we find on artist with single vision and the capability to bring that vision to completion. Zeno's 'Runway To The Gods' accomplishes just that: talent with purpose produces exceptional results. However, in the end, there is no new ground broken here: this is simply classic melodic hard rock. Yet it is worth a listen; if you have the bucks, spend it on this work. If you love melodic hard rock or a stronger AOR song, you should purchase 'Runway.'

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Riot: Army Of One

Melodic Hard Rock
Rating: 3.5/5.0

I've been a fan of Riot for years. Honestly, I think their best work was nearly 30 years ago with albums like 'Rock City,' 'Narita' (my personal favorite), and 'Fire Down Under.' I had my doubts about the current version of Riot after finding 1999's 'Sons of Society' in a used CD bin at one of my favorite record stores. That was a dismal and boring piece of plastic as far as i'm concerned. However, 'Army Of One' gives me some hope that Riot's glory may have returned.

'Army' does not have the raw energy we know and love in those early Riot albums. What it does have is the power of Mike DiMeo's strong and versatile voice and the brilliance of Mark Reale and Mike Flyntz's fret work. The excellent guitar work is probably the single most important reason why I listen to Riot. It is definitely reclaimed here especially on the title track, 'The Mystic,' and 'Alive In The City.' Yet, every song has its merits and, more importantly, can stand on it's own.

If you're a Riot fan, you will find this album exceptional. It's a worthy addition to their catalog and hopefully a promise of more good things to come.

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Leverage: Tides

Melodic/Progressive Rock
Rating: 4.5/5.0

I took some time to get my hands on this fine album; and it was worth the effort. Leverage, organized by guitarist Tuomas Heikkinen, hails from Finland. Again our Scandinavian friends deliver superb melodic rock (putting American music to shame with great ease, I might add.) Leverage walks the same path as Brother Firetribe, also Finnish, and The Poodles from Sweden. I have always said one thing about our brothers across the pond: they have a sense of history. They understand the legacy of melodic heavy metal and hard rock. They are unafraid to revisit these classic forms and then produce a contemporary composition of equal creativity and significance. Leverage does exactly this.

If, when listening to 'Tides,' you have a sense of deja vu, it's because Pekka Heino from Brother Firetribe is providing the vocals. His form is strong and convincing. I say this because 'Tides' is harder than Brother Firetribe's False Metal. This only proves Mr. Heino's versatility and expertise.

Every song on this album is great. There is no repetition here: there is true thoughtful creativity in each tune. Mr. Heikken and company have worked hard to produce compositions with these essential strengths: thoughtful lyrics, a tight rhythm section, brilliant vocals (already mentioned above), and, of course, vibrant guitar solos (my favorite as familiar readers already know). There are some real jewels here in 'Superstition,' Horizon,' 'Marching To War,' and 'Gone.'

Leverage's 'Tides' is the reason why I continue to search for and listen to melodic metal and hard rock. I'm thankful I was able to acquire this work. You should get it too!

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Wuthering Heights: The Shadow Cabinet

Power/Progressive Metal
Rating: 4.0/5.0

My first exposure to Wuthering Heights began with 'Far From The Madding Crowd,' a masterpiece of power and progressive metal. Erik Ravn and company return in 2006 with 'The Shadow Cabinet,' an excellent work, nearly equivalent to 'Maddening.'

On 'Cabinet' there are impressive and complex arrangements that feature sterling guitar work and some interesting folk metal additions. For me, the most impressive element is Nils Patrik Johansson's vocals. Mr. Johansson has great range and creativity and it shines on this work. This is against his work in the latest Astral Doors' release 'Astralism,' where his vocals were destroyed in the muddy production.

Generally, this is a work of consistency and intelligent creativity. Though all the songs are vibrant, the single defining highlight is 'Carpe Noctem:' this song exemplifies Wuthering Heights in craftsmanship and musicianship. For fans of Wuthering Heights, this is a no-brainer buy. For others, go with 'Far From The Madding Crowd' first.

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Vicious Rumors: Warball

Heavy Metal
Rating: 4.5/5.0
v www.viciousrumors.com


Journeyman vocalist, James Rivera (ex-Helstar, Distant Thunder, Seven Witches) has been very busy in 2006. He appears on Killing Machine's Metalmorphosis and now on a new incarnation of Vicious Rumors. Although VR is not only about Mr. Rivera, his vocal style is unmistakable. His vocals are definitively heavy metal being in the same category of Ronnie James Dio and Rob Halford. And that is very good company. When you combine his vocal histrionics with VR founder Geoff Thorpe and the guitar work Mr. Thorpe and Brad Gillis, you have a brilliant work in 'Warball.'

This is an exceptional metal album. All guns are blazing from beginning to end. Every song is a gem and when you get to the end you wish you could hear the songs that didn't make the cut. Even the last song 'Oceans of Rage,' which attempts a more modern dirty vocal feel but only sounds harsh, redeems itself because of its speed, melody, and fierce guitar work. Mr. Rivera's vocals aside, it is the blistering guitar heroics of Mr. Thorpe and Mr. Gillis that first hooked my listening ear. Frankly, I'm sucker for insane guitar leads and 'Warball' delivers in pure metal style.

This is true metal akin to last year's Dream Evil's 'United' and Primal Fear's 'Seven Seal.' Again this is excellent company to keep. If this current incarnation of Vicious Rumors can hold together, I look forward to more brilliant work in the future.

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Fairyland: The Fall Of An Empire

Symphonic Power Metal
Rating: 4.5/5.0

If there is an heir apparent to Rhapsody (0f Fire) or Avantasia, it is France's Fairyland. Their brand of metal is epic and sweeping symphonic power metal. Following their first release 'Of Wars In Osyhria.,' Philippe Giordana and company bring us another epic tale of fantasy and adventure based on the world of Osyhria. You may read more about this story on their forum page.

In terms of power metal there is nothing truly new here. These gentleman know their genre and what they wish to accomplish. Therefore, they have created an exceptional musical adventure in power metal. The strongest elements are 1) the story: it takes skill to flesh out an epic fantasy tale and Mr. Giordana has done well; 2) the vocal clarity: Maxime Leclercq's vocals are strong and versatile; on several songs he is complimented by female vocals; and 3) the arrangements: there is enough variation to create a distinction among the songs and therefore avoid the monotony that can be found often in power metal albums.

I highly recommend this album to fans of Fairyland and those who love epic symphonic power metal.

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Dragonland: Astronomy

Power/Progressive Metal
Rating: 4.5/5.0

My first experience with Sweden's Dragonland came with their 2004 release 'Starfall,' an exceptional example of the finest Scandinavian power metal. I quickly got my hands on 'The Battle Of The Ivory Plans' (2001) and then 'Holy War' (2002). TBOTIP overwhelmed me with an epic story embraced by great melodic metal; it was in my player for weeks. It's still my favorite Dragonland album.

Dragonland returns with another great offering in 'Astronomy.' All the things you expect from them remain: strong lyrics, complex arrangements, and powerful melodic music. Yet, on Astronomy you will also find new ingredients in the mix. There are some pseudo-dirty vocals on several songs such as 'Antimatter.' Thankfully, these vocals 'work' adding atmosphere to each composition. All though this is not really new, the addition of female vocals also adds beauty and diversity to the music. This is particularly evident on 'Too Late For Sorrow,' a rich and powerful song with qualities of a duet fueled ballad. (If there is room for a single release in the European market, this would be the one for me.)

Also, a strong progressive metal element streams through the album. It is especially evident on 'Beethoven's Nightmare' and 'Direction Perfection.' The arrangements are complex and the guitar work brings to mind Pink Floyd. Also, there seems to be a folk side to the progressive metal influence as found at the beginning of 'Cassiopeia,' and later on the final chapter of The Book of Shadows (begun on 'Starfall'), a purely instrumental number.

'Astronomy' finishes with the three part 'The Old House on the Hill,' a sweeping symphonic instrumental story. With the exception of vocals, this trilogy demonstrates many of the aforementioned items. It also reminds me of why I love Dragonland: there is majesty and beauty in there metal.

For the purists, 'Astronomy' is still an aggressive power metal album. You may even say it's traditional and comfortable; in other words, it's what you would expect from Dragonland. However, I would say that there is enough new and innovative nuances to suggest that Dragonland are not sitting still. They have more to offer and will continue to explore and progress. I believe this album will be spinning in my player for quite some time.

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Manticora: The Black Circus Part One

Power/Progressive Metal
Rating: 4.0/5.0

I was first introduced to the Danish power metal band Manticora on their interesting conceptual album 'The Eight Deadly Sins' released in 2004. I loved the the concept and the songwriting was exceptional. Additionally, the musicianship was proficient and powerful even if it never broke any new ground in the genre of power metal. My biggest difficulty with 'Sins' was with Lars Larsen's vocals. On every song, I found his vocals monotonous, having no significant range, and muddy, barely rising above the music. Yet, I still enjoyed my first introduction to Manticora.

Manticora returns in 2006 with another concept album 'The Black Circus' about a 19th century gypsy circus. I'm afraid I have the same reservations. However, I believe Mr. Larsen's vocals have matured on this effort. Or maybe the production has improved putting his vocals above the instruments; or, more simply, maybe I've come to accept his style and his dogged determination to pursue his dream. Whatever! Enough of this!

What I do know is that I enjoy listening to Manticora even with the aforementioned reservation and the fact that this is generic power metal. I enjoy their conceptual efforts and, therefore, their lyrical composition. Additionally, these boys are good musicians: they play power metal with acumen and intensity. There music is at once subtle and then again symphonic and bombastic; everything I expect in this style.

Manticora may never rise above the gaggle of power metal bands in the world. Nevertheless, they get it; the understand themselves, their genre, and have the heart and soul to press on despite insolent critics like myself. Bravo Manticora! Rock on!

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Jon Oliva's Pain: Maniacal Renderings

Melodic Heavy Metal
Rating: 4.5/5.0

We begin the new year where we left off in 2006 with a new album by a Savatage alumnus. Jon Oliva, a founding member of Savatage, brings his Pain back again with a wonderful new offering, 'Maniacal Renderings.' Mr. Oliva combines his excellent song composition with a company of fine musicians. The result is an outstanding disc of complex and very enjoyable songs.

One could say that this is essentially another Savatage album and this may be correct. All the signature elements remain: complex arrangements, sterling guitar work, lavish keyboards, and of course, a profound, even bombastic sound. Every song is excellent and represents Mr. Oliva's imaginative touch (particularly his almost Alice Cooper-ish vocals). Particular stand outs include 'End Times' and 'Who's Playing God.'

An added bonus is found in the liner notes where Mr. Oliva comments on each song. Especially telling are his thoughts on 'Still I Pray For You,' which is the first song he wrote after his brother Chris' passing.

If I had to make a list of my favorite albums of 2006, 'Maniacal Renderings' could easily fall into the top ten. It returns me to everything I love about melodic metal. And the more I listen to it, the more pleasing and complex I find it. Every fan of this genre should add 'Maniacal Renderings' to their collection.

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Rhapsody Of Fire: Triumph Or Agony

Melodic Heavy Metal
Rating: 4.5/5.0

Rhapsody of Fire is not a new band; but you probably already know this. After a legal dispute with the online music service, Italian purveyors of bombastic soundtrack metal, Rhapsody had to surrender their moniker. They return as Rhapsody of Fire. And their return heralds another signature album in a genre they essentially helped to create and singularly rule. (However, recent newcomers Fairyland give them a run for their money on their latest release, 'Fall Of And Empire.' A review is forthcoming.)

Everything you expect from Luca Turilli and crew is here: a sweeping symphonic style, blistering guitar work from Mr. Turilli, passionate and soaring vocals from Fabio Lione, and fantastic and heroic tales. In the case of ROF, there is nothing new under the sun. But this is what makes them so charming and enjoyable: the undeniable predictability of epic songs and performance. You get exactly what you expect and you are happily satisfied. I was and you will be too if you are a fan.

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