Monday, March 25, 2013

Spock's Beard - Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep

Spock’s Beard
Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep
Inside Out Music/Century Media Records/E.M.I. Music Australia

Few would deny that between the years of 1995 and 2002, Los Angeles (California, U.S.) progressive rock outfit Spock’s Beard were at their best creatively with vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and group founder Neal Morse at the helm.
But after six critically acclaimed albums, Morse decided to focus on his solo career, which left many fans questioning whether the band could survive his loss.
With the announcement of drummer Nick D’Virgilio taking on the lead vocals, Spock’s Beard made a quick return to the scene. But despite D’Virgilio skills as a vocalist, the absence of Morse on the song writing front was a definite blow to the band, and as a consequence, the first few post-Morse releases were at best hit and miss.
Despite a somewhat patchy period with D’Virgilio, Spock’s Beard finally managed to break free of the past and produced an absolute masterpiece in 2010 with ‘X’. It took the band four releases, but they eventually found their own sound.
Unfortunately, the success of ‘X’ was short lived, with D’Virgilio announcing his departure in order to focus on family, and take on the role as the official touring drummer for Cirque Du Soleil. Having faced the same situation in the past, Spock’s Beard (Who comprise of guitarist/vocalist Alan Morse, bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Dave Meros, keyboardist/vocalist Ryo Okumoto and drummer/vocalist Jimmy Keegan) wasted no time in recruiting Enchant vocalist Ted Leonard into the fold to help out with live commitments. It came as no surprise that after several gigs, Leonard was officially announced as D’Virgilio’s permanent replacement.
Three years after the release of ‘X’, Spock’s Beard are back with album number eleven in ‘Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep’. And as expected, the band’s new release sees them playing things safe.
‘Hiding Out’ is a surprising opener for the album, with the song solely written by Leonard. But while the move might be an ambitious one, the song is a strong one, and Leonard more than proves his ability to fill the void left behind by D’Virgilio. The use of keyboards, sparse electric guitars and acoustic guitars gives the song a lighter feel than what you would normally expect from the band, but is overall a sound that best matches Leonard’s melodic vocals. Of course, there’s plenty of progressive improvisation within the song, but it’s the choruses that really give the song its character. In other words, there’s no denying that ‘Hiding Out’ is a Spock’s Beard song, but it’s hard to miss an undeniable Enchant influence there as well with Leonard on board.
‘I Know Your Secret’ follows up next, and one of my personal favourites. The song is not only one of the heavier sounding efforts on the album, but also one of the more experimental as well, with the union of Spock’s Beard and Leonard attempting to create something a little different and unique, rather than opting for the familiar. Of course, the song does have its moments of familiarity, but the extra injection of guitar, the faster pace and the mellow breakdown around the three quarter mark (Which allows Leonard to really show off his emotive vocals) add some much needed fresh ideas to Spock’s Beard’s song writing framework.
‘A Treasure Abandoned’ is typically what you would expect from Spock’s Beard. The song starts out with a huge sweeping progressive introduction which is concluded with a breakdown, after which the song officially gets underway in a fairly soothing manner. It’s in this centre that the pop/rock side of the band’s sound comes to the fore, and just how Leonard’s vocals and melodies fit perfectly in that mould. Don’t get me wrong, ‘A Treasure Abandoned’ is a great song, but a fairly predictable one in terms of what Spock’s Beard has delivered time and time again.
There’s a lot of Enchant heard within ‘Submerged’, which is not surprising given that it’s a Leonard composition. The slower tempo and relaxed atmosphere that runs throughout the track may have some Spock’s Beard fans thinking the song is a little on the long side of things, but if you’re a fan of Enchant, you’ll know what’s in store here.
‘Afterthoughts’ is the third part of the ongoing ‘Thoughts’ series, and as you would expect, very much a traditional Spock’s Beard number with Neal Morse helping out on the song writing. The vocal chaos of criss-crossing vocal lines is once again reprised, and while it’s done well, I can’t help but feel that it’s all been heard before. Much like ‘A Treasure Abandoned’, ‘Afterthoughts’ is good, but hardly groundbreaking for the band.
After a couple of less than stellar efforts, the band manages to finally impress with ‘Something Very Strange’. Although not too far removed from Spock’s Beard’s trademark sound, the darker tones, the greater progressive instrumentation and Leonard’s powerful vocal and melodies really make song stand out.
Finishing up the album is ‘Waiting For Me’, which is the other track on the album Alan Morse co-write with Neal. And predictably enough, it’s another one of the album’s stronger efforts. Sure, it’s not a real departure of style from what you would otherwise expect from the Morse brothers (Heavily harmonised vocals, pockets of solos from all involved and a brief interlude in the middle to break up the twelve minute epic into two distinct halves), but a good song is a good song.
Overall, ‘Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep’ is a solid album, but a definite step down to the brilliant ‘X’.
I can’t help but feel that with ‘Brief Nocturnes And Dreamless Sleep’, Spock’s Beard are playing it safe, especially given that it marks Leonard’s first recording with the band. Time will tell of course whether this is true or not, but unless the band attempt to create something for themselves, they’ll always live in the shadow of their Neal Morse led era, and their sole D’Virgilio era masterpiece ‘X’.

For more information on Spock’s Beard, check out - http://www.spocksbeard.com/

© Justin Donnelly

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)

Steven Wilson
The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)
Kscope/Snapper Music

Despite plans to get back together and start work on a new album in 2012, Porcupine Tree was once again put on the backburner by the group’s founder/front man Steven Wilson in favour of pursuing his solo career following the success of his first two solo efforts. So it comes as no surprise to find that in short two years since the release of his critically acclaimed ‘Grace For Drowning’, Wilson brings us his eagerly anticipated third follow-up effort ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)’.
Those who are familiar with Wilson’s previous solo efforts will no doubt have a fair idea of what to expect from ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)’. But if you were to assume that Wilson’s latest album is a carbon copy of the jazz-fusion/progressive rock/avant-garde direction Wilson took with his former efforts, then you would be wrong. Because while some of that style is still evident on ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)’, there’s also a renewed focus from Wilson on writing songs as the core, and fitting the instrumentation around that solid framework. In other words, while there’s a parallel between this body of work and his previous efforts, this album is also something different altogether.
The opening track ‘Luminol’, which originally debuted on Wilson’s live D.V.D. ‘Get All You Deserve’ in 2012, is somewhat of a transitional track that combines the genre defying jazz-fusion/progressive rock/metal sound of old with the melodic and emotive song structure that Wilson has made a name for himself with. The track initially starts out with a groove based drum and bass rhythm that is hammered out in an almost funky manner, before incorporating some flute and keyboards to give the track a bit of a ‘70’s progressive rock feel. It isn’t until around the five minute mark that the track takes on a more late night jazz tone, with the piano and gentle percussion and Wilson’s heavily layered harmony vocals standing out. The final three minutes sees a build up of heavy sounding keyboards, and fuses those heavier tones together with a reprisal of the funky jazz groove that opened up the song to a climatic and satisfying close.
After such an ambitious and epic start to the album, the follow-up track ‘Drive Home’ took me somewhat by surprise. With its gentle acoustic guitar backbone, subtle drums accompaniment and lush keyboards; ‘Drive Home’ reminds me a lot of Wilson’s other project Blackfield. Wilson’s beautiful harmonies are a huge part of what makes this song stand out, but credit also has to be given to guitarist Guthrie Govan, who really takes the song to a whole new level with his amazing improvised solo towards the tail end of the song.
‘The Holy Drinker’ sees Wilson revisit the dark and heavy organ/mellotron tones intertwined with moments of freestyle flute and sax passages – which gives the song a feel and vibe that could have easily been lifted from his former solo efforts with ease. Co-producer Alan Parsons (Who’s previously worked with The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and is the mastermind behind The Alan Parsons Project) adds a touch of diversity on the track with a guest guitar solo, but otherwise this track is an intense ‘70’s inspired progressive rock workout that Wilson has built his solo work around.
At just a touch over five minutes, ‘The Pin Drop’ is the album’s shortest cut, and one of the album’s more Porcupine Tree sounding efforts. In a lot of ways, the song could have slotted onto Porcupine Tree’s 2009 album ‘The Incident’, particularly with its abundant use of vocal melodies and more rock structured framework. But in saying that, I can’t help but feel that if there’s one track that tends to get overlooked more than any other on this album, it’s this track. In a nutshell, it’s O.K., but without a doubt the album’s weakest offering.
Things get back on track with ‘The Watchmaker’, which is opened with some delicate acoustic work that underpins Wilson’s emotional vocals, before drifting away with a lengthy progressive instrumental middle section that ebbs and flows between quieter atmospheric passages and improvised progressive rock passages. Sure, the piano work in the latter half of the track is a bit reminiscent of Peter Gabriel era Genesis at times, but the multi-layered backing vocals from Wilson and the instrumentation from the rest of the band that drifts in and out throughout do manage to transform the song into something a little more unique and original sounding for the most part.
Finishing up the album is the title track ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’, which is again one of my definite favourites on the album alongside ‘Drive Home’. This track is full of emotion, and when you couple that with Wilson’s impeccable knack for stirring melodies and lyrical narration, Dave Stewart’s perfect orchestration and Govan’s understated guitar work, you can’t help but feel that this track really is a work of perfection, and the perfect way to close the album.
With ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)’, Wilson has managed to tone down the experimentation of his previous solo releases, and incorporate more of the melodic aspects of his various other projects. What this combined effort means is that ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories)’ is by far Wilson’s most accomplished and all-round complete sounding solo releases to date.

For more information on Steven Wilson, check out – http://www.stevenwilsonhq.com/

© Justin Donnelly

Monday, March 4, 2013

Blynd - Punishment Unfolds

Blynd
Punishment Unfolds
Pitch Black Records

The latest act to sign to Pitch Black Records’ ever growing roster of diverse acts is Nicosia/Larnaca (Cyprus) based outfit Blynd.
Despite having formed way back in 2003, Blynd haven’t really been that active on the studio front, with only a couple of demos (2004’s ‘Embraced And Abandoned’ and 2007’s ‘The Human Touch’) and one full-length effort (2010’s ‘The Enemy’, which was pressed to one thousand copies and released through Fishbone Records) to their name. But after a couple of years laying low, the four piece outfit (Comprising of vocalist/bassist Andreas Paraschos, guitarists George Masouras and Constantinos Constantinou and drummer Alex Iacovou) is back with their Pitch Black Records debut ‘Punishment Unfolds’.
Pinning down Blynd’s sound is a bit of a challenge, as the band manages to incorporate several different influences and styles throughout the ten tracks on their latest effort ‘Punishment Unfolds’. There’s no denying that a strong groove metal sound that underpins the vast majority of the band’s songs, but there’s also elements of thrash metal and melodic death metal as well. Under normal circumstances, this hybrid mix of styles would make for a confused and inconsistent listen. But somehow, Blynd manage to make their mix of sounds and styles work throughout, which ensures that ‘Punishment Unfolds’ remains a great listen throughout.
The album starts off with ‘Divine Gathering’ - an orchestral/choral piece (Which was written by co-producer/mixer/engineer Philip Zilfo) that incorporates some industrial elements to create a truly stirring piece of soundtrack work. After the song’s climatic ending, the introduction of thrashing guitars is brought up into the mix and the band get things underway with ‘Arrival Of The Gods’. Part groove metal and part melodic death metal, ‘Arrival Of The Gods’ is an infectious blast of metal that hits hard, and yet retains a catchiness on both the death growled vocal and guitar front that is undeniably appealing. And if that wasn’t enough, the song also features some explosive lead work as well, which showcases the true talents within the group.
The title track ‘As Punishment Unfolds’ is a fast paced and rhythmic/heavily grooved detour into melodic death metal territory that boasts some great vocal trade-offs between Paraschos and guest vocalist Sakis Tolis (Rotting Christ), while ‘Never For The Fallen’ (Which is opened by a spoken word quote from Charles Manson) is a straightforward grooving thrasher that pummels the listener into submission with its diverse array of catchy riffs, clean melodic lead work and varying tempo changes.
‘Sins To The Cross’, which features a guest appearance from Winter’s Verge vocalist George Charalambous, is a bit more left of centre sounding with a touch of power metal seeping into the band’s overall sound, while ‘The Chosen Few’ (The promotional video clip for this song is included here on the C.D. as a bonus) and ‘Divine Conspiracy’ appear to be a little more stripped back than anything on the album, and therefore could be considered the weaker sounding efforts to appear on the album.
But despite a couple of less than stellar moments around the middle of the album, the tail end of the album still packs plenty of punch, with the progressively melodic death metal edged ‘Convicted In The Devil’s Land’, ‘The Final Resistance’ (Which features some experimentation in guitar sounds to great effect) and the adventurous closer ‘Infinity Race’ all standing out as highlights.
Blynd is a difficult act to pin down in the genre sense, but if there’s one thing that can be agreed upon, it’s that ‘Punishment Unfolds’ is one impressive release.
All up, ‘Punishment Unfolds’ comes highly recommended, and Blynd the kind act worthy of keeping an eye on in the future.

For more information on Blynd, check out - http://www.blyndmetal.com/

© Justin Donnelly

Hatebreed - The Divinity Of Purpose

Hatebreed
The Divinity Of Purpose
Nuclear Blast Records/Riot! Entertainment

When it comes to metallic hardcore, there are few bands as consistent or reliable as Bridgeport (Connecticut, U.S.) based outfit Hatebreed.
Over the course of their sixteen year existence, the band have carved out a unique crossover niche for themselves within the metalcore scene, with the band’s fan base split between those within the hardcore and metal scenes.
It’s been somewhat of a lengthy gap between releases for Hatebreed, with four years having past since the release of their self-titled album way back in 2009. But after spending a bit of time immersing himself in other projects (Including Kingdom Of Sorrow’s sophomore effort ‘Behind The Blackest Tears’ in 2010, and his rather experimental solo effort ‘Jasta’ in 2011), group founder/vocalist Jamey Jasta has once again turned his attention to Hatebreed, who have unveiled their highly anticipated seventh full-length effort ‘The Divinity Of Purpose’.
Anyone who’s familiar with Hatebreed will know exactly what’s in store within the band’s latest effort ‘The Divinity Of Purpose’. Hatebreed isn’t the kind of band to experiment with sound and direction purely to keep fans on their toes. No, Hatebreed have well and truly established their sound and style over the years, and they know that it’s exactly what fans want to hear from them time and time again.
The only real question is whether or not Hatebreed’s latest effort stands alongside their former releases in terms of strong songs. And in short, the answer is pretty much a resounding ‘Yes’!
Hatebreed (Who aside from Jasta, comprise of guitarists Wayne Lozinak and Frank Novinec, bassist Chris Beattie and drummer Matt Byrne) get the album off to an explosive start with ‘Put It To The Torch’ – the first single released from the album. It’s energetic, brutal and catchy enough to get any listener’s blood pumping, and everything any fan could ask for from a Hatebreed track.
From here, the band rarely lets up, with the follow-up track ‘Honor Never Dies’ (The second single from the album) a truly scathing track with a great chorus, while songs such as the fast paced ‘Own Your World’, ‘The Language’ (Which boasts a brief, but cool lead break), ‘Indivisible’, the stomping/menacing power groove of ‘Dead Man Breathing’ and ‘Boundless (Time To Murder It)’ are the definite picks dotted throughout the album.
While there are a couple of tracks that don’t quite match the quality of those mentioned above (The most notable has to be ‘Idolized And Vilified’, which gets lost at the tail end of the album), overall the album is another highly enjoyable and all-round killer effort from Hatebreed.
Hatebreed aren’t exactly the kind of band to step outside the box and change for the sake of change. But then that’s part of the strength of Hatebreed. Fans know exactly what to expect from Hatebreed, and sure enough, ‘The Divinity Of Purpose’ won’t disappoint fans one bit.

For more information on Hatebreed, check out - http://www.hatebreed.com/

© Justin Donnelly