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Lynch Mob —Smoke & Mirrors
Artist:
Lynch Mob
Album:
Smoke & Mirrors
Genre:
Hard Rock
Bottom
Line:

Worth the wait, but don’t expect Wicked Sensation Part 2.

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 3.5
Production & Engineering: 3.0
Vibe: 4.0
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars 3.6

Lynch Mob’s sensational (no pun) 1990 debut Wicked Sensation will forever be the yardstick by which the band is judged. So when George Lynch proclaimed in pre-release interviews that the new album Smoke and Mirrors was a natural follow up, expectations were set high. However, when engaging in this type of hype, one runs the risk of either setting up an inevitable letdown or misleading fans altogether. So does the new album live up to the hype? Well, sort of…

Those expecting Smoke and Mirrors to match the debut album in style need to be aware that contrary to earlier reports and “net speak,” it does not. And at the risk of offering a backhanded compliment, this is ultimately a good thing. Sensation was a slicker and splashier sounding album, the 1980s weren’t that far gone, and although I wouldn’t classify it as Hair Metal, it was stylistically closer to that era than the new release, which oftentimes gives more than a subtle nod to the hard rock of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

For example, the title track features an intro that would not sound out of place on an early Doobie Brothers record! There are also modern influences as well, such as the disc’s opener, “21st Century Man.” Between the main riff and megaphone-effected vocal, it’s not difficult to conjure up images of Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. So that we don’t belabor the point, suffice to say the new release is less of a follow up to Sensation than it is a collection of songs that ultimately make up a great (albeit diverse) rock album and showcase Lynch Mob’s 2009 sound.

Back in the fold is singer Oni Logan, who brings a pleasing midrange vocal style with lots of soulfulness. In fact, he reminds me at times of the late, great Ray Gillen of Badlands fame (minus the siren-like wail). And we would be remiss not to mention the solid backbone of drummer Scott Coogan and Mr. “Jack of all Trades” himself, Marco Mendoza, on bass.

George Lynch has always had that special something in his playing that tugs at our heartstrings – something in the way he bends and hangs on certain notes, and thankfully that style of playing is liberally sprinkled throughout the album. However, it’s not all “Mr Scary” style soloing. These days George is playing more within the confines of the song structure and has even brought in a little Hendrix influence, such as the phased intro to “Where do You Sleep at Night” or the solo in the excellent “Let the Music be Your Master.” “We will Remain” is an absolute highlight, sounding every bit like a long lost Yngwie Malmsteen song complete with a diminished arpeggio-laden solo. “My Kind of Healer” and “Lucky Man” are both solid tunes, but it’s Logan’s superb voice that really closes the deal on the former. There are however a few tracks that don’t sink in right away, such as the bizarre “Madly Backwards” or the bonus track, “Mansions in the Sky.” But these are only minor knocks on an otherwise consistent collection of songs.

In summary, Smoke and Mirrors sounds exactly how a 2009 Lynch Mob should sound. That is to say there are some updated sounds, occasional nods to the past, and the addition of a few influences that have crept in over the past 19 years. The end result is an amazing rock album featuring great songs, vocals and, of course, George Lynch’s guitar.

— JQ

 
Our Lady Peace — Burn Burn Burn
Artist:
Our Lady Peace
Album:
Burn Burn Burn
Genre:
Alternative Rock
Bottom
Line:

Canadian alt rockers renew their commitment to arena rock.

Musicianship: 3.0
Songwriting: 3.0
Production & Engineering: 3.0
Vibe: 3.0
Overall Rating: 3 Stars 3.0

From the opening single, “All You Did Was Save My Life,” and similar rock numbers like “White Flags,” it’s clear that Our Lady Peace are back in strong, rocking form. Band lineup intact, the new CD compares favorably with Gravity, and is a better collection of songs overall than on the previous release, Healthy In Paranoid Times.

Singer Raine Maida has a unique voice in the rock world — he could sing anything and you’d swear it was OLP, and he steers the band through ten or more tracks that contain some good stadium rockers, some vintage U2-esque mid-tempo numbers, and at least one surprise move — “Signs of Life” finds the band channeling the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

We picked up the Deluxe edition from iTunes which includes two worthwhile bonus songs as well as a music video — if you like to download, spend the extra few bucks for the bonus material.

Some other favorite tracks include “Monkey Brains,” which opens with some great, vintage distorted bass and the bonus track “Time Bomb.” But after listening to this album many times, we still don’t find too many songs that specifically jump out at us and remain entrenched in our memory. There’s goodness on Burn Burn Burn; not greatness.

If you long for truly original OLP classics like the stunning Happiness is Not a Fish That You Can Catch, we’re afraid that those days are gone now. Where they used to write complex alternative rock that almost bordered on progressive, all of the songs today follow simple, straightforward formulas. A few verses and choruses lead to the bridge and back to the chorus. Maida’s voice aside, the band is really starting to sound just like everyone else in the genre, albeit these veterans play their instruments better than many of the up-and-comers. This is unfortunate, especially considering that Maida’s solo album from 2008 was extremely innovative and unique sounding.

In our dream world, they’d reunite with original producer Arnold Lani and rediscover the depth that their music used to contain. But today, they’re just another solid alternative rock band (with a great vocalist) that sits nicely in your iPod’s shuffle play while you go about your daily business.

— SK

 
 
Porcupine Tree The Incident
Artist:
Porcupine Tree
Album:
The Incident
Genre:
Progressive Rock
Bottom
Line:

Porcupine Tree music for the masses, if there ever were such a thing.

Musicianship: 3.5
Songwriting: 3.5
Production & Engineering: 3.5
Vibe: 4.0
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars 3.6

The latest Porcupine Tree CD, The Incident, is a two-CD set sure to both excite existing fans as well as bring a new legion of fans to the table. What it is not is another dark tale of disillusioned youth as featured on the brilliant Fear of a Blank Planet. Rather, The Incident is lighter fare than that, and perhaps is best described as combining the accessibility of Deadwing with the cohesiveness of Planet.

Disc 1 is a concept album featuring one 55-minute long song running the entire course of the program content, albeit broken apart into fourteen sections which, if you didn’t know this back-story, you’d swear were individual songs. How clever! Be careful how you burn playlists in your iPod — almost every section cross-fades beautifully from one segue into another.

Disc 2 contains four random songs that are not tied to the conceptual theme of the first disc. But be thankful it’s in there, as the final song, “Remember Me Lover,” is another one of the band’s brilliant ballads destined to become a classic.

From the opening power chords of Disc 1, you’re drawn into the obvious Porcupine Tree world. There is no new ground broken on this release. The band lineup remains the same as it has existed for many years now, featuring band visionary and principle songwriter Steven Wilson on vocals, guitars, and piano; Richard Barbieri painting lush soundscapes on those electronic keyboard things with lots of blinking lights and knobs; Colin Edwards (bass) and Gavin Harrison (drums) locking together in one of the most fantastic rhythm sections the genre has ever known, and unofficial fifth member John Wesley supplying random additional guitars (if not more). John tours with the band always as second guitarist and backing vocalist.

The sounds and style of performance are pretty much the same as they were on Planet, which is similar to what you’ll hear on Steven Wilson’s excellent solo record, Insurgentes, released this past year as well. But we think Wilson may have been a bit too busy this year, or perhaps too pressured by his record label to spend as much time on the mixing as previous efforts have received. We think that Barbieri’s synth textures are a bit too buried on most songs compared with previous recordings.

There are numerous gems to be found in Porcupine Tree’s latest song… err… songs (Wilson’s concept aside, those tracks are songs to our ears). “Your Unpleasant Family” is a positively beautiful song about, you guessed it, someone’s not-so-great family, with some refreshing lyrical content that we haven't heard since our classic '80s Smiths records.“Your unpleasant family smashed up my car… Your unpleasant family, how vile they are.”

The first single, “Time Flies,” is a poignant tune that reflects upon the precious nature of time and leaves us with that beautiful feeling you get from other Porcupine Tree gems like “Lazarus.” And if you’re feeling down, nothing will cheer you up quit like the melancholy “I Drive The Hearse.”

The title track, “The Incident,” has all the ingredients of signature Porcupine Tree material. Ambient synth droning leads a slow buildup to bone-crushing, tight and heavy guitars.

The overall vibe of this collection is more of an easy listening, relaxed Porcupine Tree album than some of their more recent CDs. There’s a lot more “Trains” than “Halo” or “Blackest Eyes” in this collection, and although it’s not as aggressive as some of their other material, there isn’t a bad song to be found, and the work flows beautifully. It would make as good an entry point for newcomers to discover Porcupine Tree as, perhaps, Deadwing. For music lovers who can’t seem to find anything worth getting excited about in music stores these days, the songwriting and musicianship on The Incident are both excellent reminders that there are in fact some great musicians creating great original music that has a sound uniquely its own.

— SK
 
State Shirt —This Is Old
Artist:
State Shirt
Album:
This Is Old
Genre:
Alternative Rock
Bottom
Line:

If Radiohead were more melodic and U2 got back to their roots you might find them making music like this.

Musicianship: 3.5
Songwriting: 4.0
Production & Engineering: 2.5
Vibe: 4.0
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars 3.5

Ethan Tufts is one hell of a musician. Not just because he plays all the instruments, creates the beats, and sings, but because of how he does it. If you’ve ever wondered how to really exploit loopers in your sound, you need to race over to Ethan’s website (http://www.stateshirt.com) and watch some of his live performance videos — Ethan blew our minds when we saw how he creates his sounds and his songs. Some tunes are created entirely live through creative use of looping. By now, I’m sure you know how rarely we’re this impressed… and by a musician who isn’t even playing prog rock!

State Shirt songs have a definite Radiohead vibe, but Ethan’s vocal delivery is smoother and often times reminds us of Tim Booth from the British alt rock band, James. He’s big on digital delays on the guitar — Edge is an obvious influence, especially from the Achtung Baby era. And he makes some of his beats the old-school rap way… singing beats right into his looper! Before we watched his videos, we thought he was using classic drum machines for their retro, lo-fi sound.

If you like moody, brooding alternative rock, you’ll be drawn in from the very first track, and Ethan holds your attention throughout the forty-minute collection of songs.

“Fell Out Of The Sky” is just one of many gloriously catchy songs on the CD, and Ethan’s self-made video for it is yet another great example for bands on a budget to study. We especially loved the acoustic and electric guitar work on “Computer,” and on songs like “So Weird” you can share in his feelings of utter depression.

Always the innovator, Ethan’s CD was published under the Creative Commons license — public domain music! He provides source files for his album so that fans can make their own remixes. His next album will be recorded entirely using fan submissions. We can’t wait!

— SK
 
Michael Angelo Batio — Hands Without Shadows 2 — Voices
Artist:
Michael Angelo Batio
Album:
Hands Without Shadows 2 — Voices
Genre:
Neoclassical Shred
Bottom
Line:

Incredible chops, but hopelessly out of context.

Musicianship: 3.0
Songwriting: n/a
Production & Engineering: 2.0
Vibe: 2.0
Overall Rating: 2.5 Stars 2.5

If guitar playing was an Olympic event, Michael Angelo Batio would easily be named a triathlete. For those who may not be in the know, Batio is a ridiculously talented guitar player who co-founded the Metal band Nitro in 1987. The music video for Nitro’s "Freight Train" received much airplay on MTV back in the day (remember when they actually played music videos?), and was notable for featuring Batio playing his now famous “Quad Guitar,” a concept which FHM Magazine voted one of the “50 most outrageous moments in rock history.” In other words, don‘t try this at home, kids.

So, it was with great glee and expectation that I gave Batio’s new release Hands Without Shadows 2 — Voices a spin, because your reviewer likes nothing more than technical proficiency in all things music! And if you are getting the impression that I am engaging in a bit of sugarcoating you are right, because as hard as I tried to like this disc, one of the only redeeming qualities I can find is that after ten tracks… it finally ends.

Hands Without Shadows 2 is a collection of “tributes” (or “mash-ups” of other artists works) and things start out innocently enough with “Tribute to Dimebag.” Batio’s playing works exceptionally well over classic Pantera tunes like “Cemetary Gates” and “Cowboys From Hell.” A cover of Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction” also works well, as does “Metallica Rules.”

But along the way, something goes horribly wrong! The reason the aforementioned pieces work is simply because the arrangements and style of the original artists lend themselves to the shred style. But this is not the case when discussing the works of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, which is why “Clapton is God” and “For Jimi” border on painful to listen to. Ultimately, the backdrops of songs such as Cream’s “Badge” and Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” become canvasses for mindless wanking. Pedal Point and 64th notes have no place in songs originally performed by someone nicknamed “Slowhand,” nor when covering a Bob Dylan song!

The other problem is singer Warren Dunlevy, Jr., who possesses a hopelessly generic metal voice that may not sound out of place on your home demo or “Real Men of Genius” style radio spots, but does little to inspire throughout this CD. “EVH” totally misses the point and fails to capture any of the spirit (or tone) of Van Halen’s Roth-era work and “Tribute to Randy 2: You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll” is just, well…. blah.

The disc ends with “Batio Forum Shredathon” which features over a dozen members of Batio’s own forum getting their chance to shine for a few bars, which is a pretty cool concept, actually! Problem is, many of these guys sound exactly the same as each other, and truth be told, some players really aren’t up to the task (if you catch my drift).

Anyone looking to get turned on to Batio should not hesitate to pick up his earlier defining works like No Boundaries or Planet Gemini just to name a few. Fans of extreme technical guitar playing will find lots to inspire them (and perhaps send them humbly back to their metronomes!). Maybe the whole “tribute” concept is simply a fun departure for Batio and one must applaud him for being able to take these liberties as an artist. However, here’s hoping he soon gets back to original works, where his fantastic playing sounds more original and in context.

—JQ

 

New and Expanded Ratings

Our ratings for CD and DVD reviews recently got more detailed! Rather than just provide you with one overall rating, we've added ratings for the four categories that matter to us when evaluating new music:

  • Musicianship — How well the parts are performed (with consideration given for the genre of music), how well the vocals are sung, etc.
  • Songwriting — How well we think the songs are written. Interesting changes? Boring yet familiar song structure?
  • Production & Engineering — How good does the CD/DVD sound? How are the production values?
  • Vibe — A great engineered album with strong musicianship may lack a cool vibe, while a poorly sung home studio recording might have a vibe that makes you want to keep listening.

Each section has equal value, and the overall rating is the average score.

 
   
Sylvan — Force of Gravity
Artist:
Sylvan
Album:
Force of Gravity
Genre:
Progressive Melodic Rock
Bottom
Line:

German rockers tastefully combine hooks, melodies, and musicianship.

Musicianship: 3.5
Songwriting: 3.0
Production & Engineering: 3.0
Vibe: 3.5
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars 3.3

Eleven years into their career, Germany’s Sylvan have released a fine new album, Force of Gravity. Finally gaining some recognition in the United States, Sylvan have a sound that combines obvious elements and influences of Queensryche, Marillion, and Porcupine Tree with a touch of Dream Theater.

The band crafts songs that have some heavy riffs, but mostly they’re big on melodic hooks and orchestration. The musicianship is top notch throughout: Marco Gluhmann (vocals), Jan Petersen (guitars), Sebastian Harnack (bass), Volker Sohl (keys), Matthias Harder (drums).

None of the musicians steal the show from other band members — their sound is very well balanced, and all are excellent players, with some songs featuring beautiful piano and live orchestra while others focused on heavy guitars. If anyone deserves special accolades, though, it would be keyboardist Sohl, whose performance throughout the album stands out as particularly beautiful work.

Vocalist Gluhmann has a unique voice that sounds beautiful throughout most of the album; the only questionable moment being his vocals on the title track (and album opener) that sometimes bordered on whining. Strong tracks include the wonderfully riffy “Follow Me,” which also features some excellent vocal delivery, and “Isle in Me” is classic, epic melodic rock stuff with emotional vocals and big orchestration.

Some songs, like “God of Rubbish” feature acoustic guitar in more of a singer/songwriter kind of vibe, while progressive tracks like the fourteen-minute album closer “Vapour Trail” hit you like Dream Theater morphing into Marillion with a Broadway singer pouring out his heart (and a very Steve Rothery-esque guitar solo near the thirteen minute mark). Another favorite of ours was the melodic tune, “Embedded,” which has some beautiful guitar effects and synthesizer performances over a melodic U2-meets-Marillion bed.

This is a great CD with which to get to know this band, and certainly one that existing Sylvan fans will love. It’s a wonderful album listening experience throughout the hour-long journey. Production-wise, though, we found it slightly muffled or boomy in the low end at times.

— SK

 
Jorn Lande — Spirit Black
Artist:
Jorn Lande
Album:
Spirit Black
Genre:
Classic Rock, Metal
Bottom
Line:

Solid release, but feels like we’ve heard it all before.

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 3.0
Production & Engineering: 3.0
Vibe: 3.0
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars 3.3

Jorn Lande may be the greatest singer you never heard of, as well as a candidate for hardest working man in show business. He averages one album per year under the “Jorn” name, spent time as lead singer in bands like Millennium, Masterplan, Ark and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force, has collaborated with Symphony X vocalist Russell Allen on two releases, and manages to tour extensively (and this is just a partial list!). Recently, Jorn has announced his return to Masterplan, giving fans of the prog metal band’s two Lande-era releases plenty to look forward to.

As his fans already know, Jorn is a wonderful Norwegian vocalist in the tradition of David Coverdale and Ronnie James Dio. On occasion he has also been known to echo the styles of singers as diverse as Robert Plant and Bruce Dickenson to Bjork and Sting! But it is the similarity to one Mr. Coverdale that earned him a reputation early in his career, so much so that he was given the lead vocalist spot in The Snakes (an attempt to resurrect a Coverdale-less Ready and Willing-era Whitesnake). These days, Jorn has eased up a bit on the “Coverdale-ism’s” allowing his vocal style to evolve into a pleasing melting pot of the man’s many influences.

Lande’s latest release, Spirit Black, is familiar territory for long time Jorn fans — equal parts Whitesnake, Rainbow, Dio, and Deep Purple with big guitars, catchy hooks, a slick production, and of course, a world class vocalist. However, this is also to say that it is no great deviation from Jorn’s solo releases to date and one can’t escape the feeling that the same formula (albeit a pleasing one) is being repeated over and over.

Highlights include the title track, “Road to the Cross,” and “Burn Your Flame.” “Rock n Roll Angel” and “World Gone Mad” are both great up-tempo rockers and pleasing deviations from the slower plodding material Jorn has favored on recent releases like 2008’s Lonely are the Brave. The album’s bonus track is a nice, but decidedly non-essential cover of Thin Lizzy’s “The Sun Goes Down.”

Spirit Black will certainly satiate fans of any of the aforementioned bands, or serve as an introduction to one of the best hard rock vocalists to emerge in the last twenty-plus years. Yes, he’s that good, and new fans should also check out earlier Jorn releases such as Worldchanger, Out to Every Nation and especially Ark’s Burn the Sun. However, for long term fans it is hard not to have a sense of “been there/done that,” proving you can indeed have too much of a good thing.

—JQ

 

 

 

             
             
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