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Mind Key Pulse For a Graveheart
Artist:
Mind Key
Album:
Pulse For a Graveheart
Genre:
Progressive Metal, Hard Rock
Bottom
Line:

Songs that rock; killer musicianship. The new Dream Theater?

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 4.0
Production & Engineering: 3.5
Vibe: 4.0
Overall Rating: 4 Stars 3.89

Easily one of our favorite hard rock albums of 2009, Pulse for a Graveheart is one album the prog metal and AOR hard rock fan needs to buy for the holidays. Italy’s Mind Key deliver an intoxicating musical formula that can best be described as Dream Theater meets Survivor.

On Pulse, Aurelio Fierro Jr. (vocals), Emanuele Colella (guitars), Dario De Cicco (keys), Andrea Stipa (drums), and Lucio Grilli (bass) deliver an hour’s worth of fantastic songs that have catchy hooks, tight rhythms, great vocal work with some big choruses and harmonies, and outstanding musicianship.

Right from the opening track “Sunset Highway,” the influence of ‘80s hair bands is obvious, particularly on Aurello’s vocal style that owes a big nod to James Christian (House of Lords) and Jorn Lande but with a splash of David Coverdale thrown in for good measure. In fact, we couldn’t help but think that overall, this band is what House of Lords might aspire to be if they ramped up the songwriting as well as the technical chops (and those guys are pretty good in the first place).

But the music isn’t mundane throwback stuff — ‘80s influences are merely a starting point for this band. The syncopated guitar riffs chug along in alternate time signatures played against the rhythm section in modern prog style, and drummer Andrea’s double-kick playing has fantastic finesse — he lays it on thick in the right places and knows when to lay back with more traditional rock grooves.

Keyboardist Dario is chock full of modern synth sounds and layers. On songs like “Citizen of Greed” he wears his Porcupine Tree hat playing a textural role, whereas in other songs he plays synth melody lines. His piano chops are brought forth on songs like the power ballad “Crusted Memories,” which morphs into a cross between Whitesnake, Europe, and Survivor… at least until the song takes another twist at the solo section where he gets to do a little bit of keyboard shredding.

One of our favorite tracks is the most prog-licious tune on the CD, “Eye of a Stranger,” filled with loads of intricate riffs and time changes. Bassist Lucio exhibits a great range of styles here as with on the rest of the album, going from doubling guitar and keyboard lines note for note in one section and then switching to funk mode in the next section.

Unlike many prog bands, Mind Key aren’t afraid to show their love of jazz fusion. The instrumental section of “Now Until Forever” immediately made me think of the Chick Corea Elektric Band with its slapped bass, Rhodes keyboards groove and precision shred soloing (did I detect some sweep picking in there?). Musically, we were even reminded a bit of Level 42, particularly on the catchy chorus.

There were some notable guest appearances on the CD from Derek Sherinian and Reb Beach, but that’s most likely just because they’re all mutual admirers of each other. This is one capable band that should be at the top of your listening list. There are no weak songs to be found on the album, and the engineering and producing work is top notch

— SK

 
Kiss Sonic Boom
Artist:
Kiss
Album:
Sonic Boom
Genre:
Hard Rock
Bottom
Line:

Kiss is alive and well in 2009, sort of.

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

If there is one thing Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley do exceptionally well, it’s promoting and “talking up” their product to the point of making you believe you just purchased the greatest thing since sliced bread. So it should come as no surprise that in the months leading up to the new Kiss release Sonic Boom, the Kiss hype machine was off the Richter scale. Paul Stanley even went as far as proclaiming the new CD the band’s “best release in 30 years bar none,” which would give it a higher place in the Kiss canon than Dynasty, Creatures of the Night, and Lick it Up just to name a few.  

It’s also ironic that not so long ago, Simmons and Stanley were also proclaiming “no new Kiss record,” claiming there would be no market for it in an era of digital downloads and file sharing. Well, it’s funny how a little success for bands like Metallica, and especially AC/DC’s Walmart-exclusive release, caused Gene and Paul to reconsider (or maybe it was the popularity of the amazing Gene Simmons Dr. Pepper commercial)!

So here we are reviewing the first new Kiss album of original material in 11 years, another Walmart-exclusive release that not only includes the new CD, but also a CD full of fifteen “Klassic” tracks re-recorded by the new lineup and a six song, live DVD from an April 2009 Buenos Aires performance. Not bad for twelve bucks!

Unlike 1998’s ill-fated (and unfairly vilified) Psycho Circus, the new release is a true Kiss album – no outside writers, no studio musicians, no pretending to be something it is not. However, when saying “true Kiss album” it must be noted that these days original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss are no longer in the band. New members Tommy Thayer and (former-bandmate) Eric Singer have not only taken their places respectively, but also wear their famous grease paint as well. Some may argue that Thayer and Singer are imposters and the band has crossed an ethical line (we think original makeup is in order for these guys), but it’s important to remember the word “ethics” really has no place in a discussion involving grown men who wear Kabuki makeup! Once you get over the controversy surrounding the new lineup, you will be the better for it because the new Kiss album is a dang good one.

Billed as a return to the classic Kiss sound of the 1970’s, Sonic Boom is a stripped down “no messin’” rock album that’s short and punchy, laden with cheesy sexual innuendo and gives more than a passing nod to past Kiss eras. The disc’s opener (and also the first single) “Modern Day Delilah” flat out rocks and reminds me a bit of “Exciter” from the Lick it up album. Paul Stanley demonstrates that he can still wail with the best of them, though his voice at times does seem a bit strained revealing a rasp not evident in earlier recordings (it’s REALLY noticeable on the included live DVD).

“Russian Roulette” and “Yes I Know (Nobody’s Perfect)” are two powerful Gene Simmons songs with the “Demon” delivering as strong of a voice as we have ever heard from him. Tommy Thayer plays with all of the gusto of a prime Ace Frehley. In fact it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he flat out channels Ace’s spirit throughout the disc and at times even directly quotes him! Eric Singer (now in his 2nd stint as Kiss drummer) plays solidly throughout, but most importantly meets the one important criteria all Kiss drummers must meet — he sings like Peter Criss!

Both new members get a shot at lead vocals and Eric’s “All for the Glory” sounds so much like Peter Criss it’s downright uncanny. Thayer takes the lead vocal on a song he co-wrote with Stanley called “When Lightening Strikes” and although he doesn’t sound anything like Ace Frehley, his voice fits the sound of the band. Other highlights include the almost Love Gun-era “I’m an Animal,” “Danger Us,” which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Crazy Nights, and the Rock n Roll Over-esque “Hot and Cold.”  “Never Enough” is the one song that seems to raise the most eyebrows as it is a dead-ringer for Poison’s “Nothing but a Good Time,” which ironically was itself a rip-off of Kiss with its guitar intro that closely resembles “Deuce.” The album ends with “Say Yeah” which sounds a bit like Stanley’s 1978 solo album meets Hot in the Shade-era Kiss.

So despite the pre-release hype basically promising the greatest album in the history of recorded music (no, it doesn’t reach that level!) it goes to show that great albums can still be made by Hard Rock’s elder statesmen.

— JQ
 
House of Lords Cartesian Dreams
Artist:
House of Lords
Album:
Cartesian Dreams
Genre:
Hard Rock, AOR
Bottom
Line:

Dysfunctional band surpasses previous effort.

Musicianship: 3.5
Songwriting: 3.0
Production & Engineering: 3.5
Vibe: 3.0
Overall Rating: 3 Stars 3.25

House of Lords have been around for a few decades, and was founded by renowned rock keyboardist Greg Giuffria as the next evolution of his career that spanned at least another decade or two with classic AOR bands Angel and his self-titled band Giuffria in the early ‘80s.

Greg left H.O.L. a few albums ago, and most of the lineup has been in a constant state of flux (and featuring various well-known players over the years) ever since. Fortunately, powerhouse vocalist James Christianson has been delivering the vocals throughout most of the band’s career including on the latest release. His melodic vocals are in top form, though we have a tough time swallowing cheesy ‘80s lyrics like “Born to be Your Baby” being sung by a guy who is now old enough to sing “Born to be Your Mother’s Lover.”

On Cartesian Dreams, James also plays keyboards, and is backed by returning guitarist Jimi Bell, drummer B.J. Zampa, and new bassist Matt McKenna. The sound is traditional H.O.L. stuff — big vocal harmonies and melodies, predictable verse/chorus/bridge/solo arrangements, light-hearted lyrics that don’t require much analysis, tight execution, and polished production values.

The songwriting is a big step up from last year’s Come To My Kingdom, which received far too much positive praise from critics confusing good musicianship and polished production with good songwriting (easy to do these days, since both are lacking in so much of what’s being released).

Some stand-out tracks included the thoughtful “A Simple Plan,” the modern rockin’ “Never Look Back,” and totally driving “Born to be Your Baby” (despite the questionable lyrical content), and the fists-in-the-air anthem “Saved by Rock.”

The vocal harmonies on this album really seal the deal, and we’re actually bigger fans of James’s keyboard work than the master whose shoes he is now filling. The synth takes more of a back seat to the guitars, and when it’s present, there are plenty of new, modern synth sounds that help the band sound a bit refreshed.

— SK
 
Sylvan — Posthumous Silence, The Show
Artist:
Sylvan
Album:
Posthumous Silence, The Show
Genre:
Progressive Rock
Bottom
Line:

10th anniversary tour shows prog rockers in fine form.

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 3.5
Production & Engineering: 3.5
Vibe: 3.5
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars 3.63

Fans of melodic progressive rock music will welcome this high-def concert video from Germany’s Sylvan. Filmed in Hamburg in late 2007, the concert features their 2006 release, Posthumous Silence, performed in its entirety.

Newcomers to Sylvan will get an excellent introduction to the band from this concert. Picture a more uplifting Porcupine Tree fused with a splash of Marillion and some AOR influences and you’ll be in the ballpark style-wise.

The band — vocalist Marco Gluhmann, keyboardist Volker Sohl, bassist Sebastian Harnack, drummer Matthias Harder, and new guitarist Jan Petersen (who replaced former guitarist Kay Sohl after the release of Silence), are joined on stage by guest cellist Stefanie Richter (who performed on a few songs on the studio recording), a few female backing vocalists, and additional guitarist Jan Petersen. This stage-filling group does a fantastic job of delivering an album-quality performance live, perhaps delivering an even better feel in some spots (“In Chains”) than on the studio recording.

Happily, the sound quality is just as good as the video work, and a bonus performance of the song “Artificial Paradise” is included. The show features great lighting, though the band itself is a bit short on clothing style (but fortunately isn’t short on musical style).

The DVD includes great bonus material, but you’ll have to speak German to follow some of the dialog. Although some band interviews are subtitled in English, footage shot in the recording studio wasn’t. But despite Kay’s departure from the band, we would have liked to see some behind-the-scenes footage of the guitar recording from the Silence sessions. It was cool to watch a time-lapse setup and teardown of the concert stage.

— SK
 
Guilt Machine On This Perfect Day
Artist:
Guilt Machine
Album:
On This Perfect Day
Genre:
Progressive Rock
Bottom
Line:

Arjen Lucassen’s side project lives up to Ayreon standards.

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 3.5
Production & Engineering: 4.0
Vibe: 3.5
Overall Rating: 4 Stars 3.89

Fans of Dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen already know that he’s a many of many musical talents, typically playing the majority of instruments on the CDs he records under various band names. On his latest CD, Guilt Machine’s On This Perfect Day, Arjen has assembled a fantastic traditional band lineup (Ayreon, by contrast, often times has multiple singers and musicians from song to song). Featuring ex-Porcupine Tree drummer Chris Maitland, Arid’s Jasper Steverlinck on lead vocals, and Lori Linstruth (from Stream of Passion) on lead guitar, this is a superbly executed album from start to finish. Arjen plays all of the additional guitars, bass, and keyboards.

Lori not only played guitar, but wrote the lyrics for On This Perfect Day. Rather than pursuing a similar lyrical theme to Ayreon recordings (very sci-fi in nature), Arjen directed Lori to write around a theme of guilt, regret, and secrets.

Musically, Guilt Machine delivers melodic progressive rock that ranges from moody and ethereal like Pink Floyd or Porcupine Tree to hard rock grooves that seem to combine subtle ‘70s AOR influences with modern prog metal tones. To Arjen’s credit, it’s hard to find a suitable comparison. Fans of melodic prog rock and some prog metal will find a lot to enjoy in the music. If your tastes include Porcupine Tree, Queen, and Nightwish, you’ll instantly connect with this band.

Jasper is a fantastic vocalist, and his operatic style is obviously influenced by Freddie Mercury. We also love the vocal harmonies that have a ‘70s vibe to them. Lori’s lead guitar work is also worth noting as she deftly switches from traditional prog virtuosity and fluid lead lines to more alternative, Tom Morello-like melodies with clever use of pitch bending technique (“Leland Street” and “Green and Cream”). Arjen supplies beautiful sounding acoustic guitar, tight metal rhythm work, and moody, spacey synth work. His bass playing locks beautifully with Chris Maitland, and there are at least a few moments where their mutual love of Porcupien Tree comes through in some of their grooves.

Six tracks and you’ve got an hour’s worth of music… singling out specific tracks on this release seems almost pointless when at ten minutes apiece, each one is a mini epic of its own, and they’re all well written songs. The orchestration of “Perfection?” is classic, epic, prog rock. “Green and Cream” is our favorite track, though — a hard rocking prog masterpiece that ties the whole album together nicely.

— SK
 
Megadeth Endgame
Artist:
Megadeth
Album:
Endgame
Genre:
Heavy Metal
Bottom
Line:

Nice one, Dave!

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

Fans of hard rock and metal have a lot to be happy about these days.  New releases over the past two years from veteran bands like Whitesnake, Kiss, Metallica, Lynch Mob, AC/DC, and Dokken (just to name a few) have proven that the genre is far from dead.  Not to be outdone, Megadeth’s latest release Endgame is every bit as good as any of the aforementioned bands’ recent output, and certainly as good as anything in their own back catalog.

I wouldn’t exactly call this release a “return to form” because Dave Mustaine and company have produced consistently good albums, but this one certainly surpasses recent Megadeth offerings such as 2004’s The System Has Failed and 2007’s United Abominations. Not that those were bad albums per se, but Endgame is so much better on all fronts!  Take for example the one/two punch of the disc’s first two tracks, the instrumental shredfest “Dialectic Chaos” and the fist pumping “This Day We Fight!” Mustaine is at his sneering best here, and that’s one of the reasons why this release works so much better than its predecessors — Dave sounds genuinely pissed off! 

Kudos must be given to new guitarist Chris Broderick who has some big shows to fill, but he is more than up to the task with impressive dexterity and sweep arpeggios aplenty (Mustaine is no slouch either). 

Other highlights include the thrashy“1,320,” the sick and twisted “Headcrusher,” “Endgame,” and the chilling “44 Minutes,” with its backdrop of real 911 emergency calls.  We get a bit of a curve ball with the sedate “The Hardest Part of Letting Go” and the creepy “Sealed With A Kiss,” which are (thankfully) the only tracks that even remotely make you consider reaching for the skip button.

And just when you think life as a metalhead couldn’t get any better,  Megadeth will be co-headlining the American Carnage tour with Slayer and Testament, and finally after all the rumors, 2010 dates have been announced placing Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax on the same bill!

— JQ

 
   
             
             
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