Monday, December 25, 2006

A Season In Chaos ...

I can't remember exactly when I first heard Sound Of The Dead records compilation album "Brutal Christmas: A Season In Chaos", but I remember stumbling across the SOTD records site and they had an mp3 medley of the various christmas tracks available on "Brutal Christmas" and it was at that point that I had to have it. I knew it would be terribly cheesy or absolutely awesome. It is both and I love it.

The main guy at SOTD records had heard Deliverance's cover of "Silent Night" (A touchingly faithful cover with some killer thrash riffing and an slightly darker edge) and thought ~hey why isn't there an album of various extreme metal bands performing their own interpretations of traditional christmas carols? ~ . Now seeing as he owned a record company (now defunct, unrelated to the album I'm sure) and knew of several metals bands who could contribute. He ended up with "Brutal Christmas", a compilation of 11 bands performing Christmas carols like you've never heard them before. This is why I'll be giving each track a little blurb.

First off we have a thrashy cover of "Angels We Have Heard On High" by Archer. This has a great solo riff of the songs melody opening and closing the track. Though a faithful rendition it manages to have some killer riffing and blistering drum work. A shining start.

Next is Kekal's "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" which is standard Kekal fair. Kekal is an Indonesian Christian black metal band who order industrial. It's an interesting mix. Though the melody is not as traditional, Kekal manage to give the song a fresh sound while not ruining it.

Then it's "Mary Did You Know" by Royal Anguish (featuring guest performance by Henrik from Mistral). Royal Anguish do a passionate rendition while sticking to their distinct sound of progressive death metal. The song uses mostly clean vocals and some fine guitar work and keyboards. If Mary didn't know, she knows now!

Frank's Enemy destroy all that is "Lully Lullay" with their performance of "Coventry Carol (Lully Lullay)". It starts off with a renaissance sound and female vocals that are traditional, yet slightly unsettling. The music gets warped and woozy just before the band obliterates any sense of melody with their brand of sickenly brutal death metal. They do slow it up with some crunchy guitar work and a single bell. It's very disturbing and darkly sinister. The song ends with the chilling renaissance sound and female vocals. Oh those Frank's Enemy boys are one of the most brutal metal bands I've ever heard.

The renaissance sound continues on the intro to Frost Like Ashes "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence/O Come Emmanuel" with use of a harpsichord. The the band kicks in with brutal black/death metal rendition of "Let All Mortal ..." It's fast and pummelling. They slow it down into a gothy doom bit while transitioning into "O Come Emmanuel" and once we catch our breath we are blasted again into "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence". There is no silence here.

Tortured Conscience's old school death metal rendition of "Little Drummer Boy" is worth the price of the CD. It is so brutal it's almost silly. It is extreme death metal at it's best. The bone-crushing drum work is blistering, but the melody is still recognizable. Though it may get mocked (featured recently on the Howard Stern show) they perform the song faithfully with a little touch of good ol' death metal to enhance it. I would have liked to see a killer drum solo here, but maybe that's just me.

Hearken pull of a very melodic death metal cover of "O Come All Ye Faithful". It's mid-paced heavy with some nice off timed drumming and very melodic vocals that defy anyone who says death metal vocals can't carry melody.

I'm am unfamiliar with the song "Child Messiah" and cannot find an alternate version to compare to (maybe they changed the title?!?) But Death Requisite pull off some nice black metal here with hints of ethnic flavour in some of the melody. Good work

Eversinceve toss off a 7 min version of "O Holy Night" that is pure metalcore. The death/black metal vocals are great and the music is brutally faithful. The heavy breakdowns are mosh worthy and the middle bridge is stirring. But what I love here is the raw emotion inherit throughout the song. It is by far the most passionate song here because of its brutality.

Lucky for Faithbomb that Kekal's "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" uniquely their own or else we might have had some repetition. Faithbomb's "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (take 2)" is faithful to the melody, one really fast with some brutally heavy breakdowns. at a minute twenty, this is the shortest song here, but it delivers.

Pure Defiance closes the album out with a Christmasy sounding mid-paced thrash rendition of "Joy To The World". It's upliftingly wicked, with some fine thrash work in the middle and wailing soloing. It ends the album on a lighter note without losing the metal edge carried through the album.

As much as I love "Little Drummer Boy" I'd have to go with Eversinceve's "O Holy Night" as my fave, it's just so moving. This album is a must for any metalhead to own and crank through the holidays. I also have a silly cover of "Do They Know It's Christmas" by the Deftones, though faithfully done, is almost mocking, but not quite. As well as a Rush-esque cover of "O Come Emmanuel" with hints of Pink Floyd and new age. I don't know who the artist is though. And lastly if you can check out Korn's disgustingly brutal death metal version of Jingle Bell's... It's brilliant.

Well this is it for me till the New Year when I'll be limiting my reviews to once a week. I's is just to busy to keep up. This way I can give the albums my full attention and I don't feel I'm rushing them. Thanks to everyone who keeps on coming back and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and all the best in the New Year!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

By An Old Neon Star ...

I love Trans-Siberian Orchestra. There I said it. I guess it's because Savatage is my favourite band and Trans-Siberian Orchestra is, at it's core Savatage expanded. TSO is the brainchild of Paul O'Neill who is Savatage's producer and helped usher in the new Savatage sound which to older fans was not welcome. However, I learned to appreciate the efforts and strong musicianship. Green Day did not resuscitate the rock opera concept album. Savatage and eventually Trans-Siberian Orchestra have kept it alive and well. You just had to know where to look. But enough about Savatage and on the experience that is Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Paul O'Neill with the help of Jon Oliva and Bob Kinkel have created an unapologetically sappy, yet extremely heartwarming album. This is not the first time rock and Christmas have been mixed, but never have I heard such a unique and passionate blend. TSO is like progressive power metal with power ballad tendencies. Oh and if you throw in some jazz, blues and classical styles you'll start to understand where I'm going with this. It's an eclectic mix of various musical styles with a variety of vocalists blended into one of the most original sounds you'll hear. All while not forgetting to rock!

The album "Christmas Eve And Other Stories" starts and ends with "An Angel Came Down" and "An Angel Returned" respectively, with the later being a show stopping gospel reprise of the first (which is more power ballady). The story is of the Angel instructed by the Lord to go find something on Earth that best represents Christmas. I won't spoil the ending for you, but its sweet. Other ballady songs are "Ornament", "This Christmas Day" and "Old City Bar". While the first 2 are flat out power ballads with the first having a great solo and the second having a touch of gospel for that extra soul. "Old City Bar" however, is a bare-bones acoustic song with the vocalist (who I can't figure out which one it is) has a gruff, yet powerful voice and brings home the real Christmas message. Of strangers doing uncharacteristic actions on the eve of Christmas and reeks of heartfelt emotion. This is my favourite song on the album, it's raw and emotional.

On "The Prince Of Peace" a female vocalist (??? I wish they'd had put who sang what in the liner notes) gives a powerful rendition of "Hark, The Harold Angels Sing" in the middle of the song. Again, just stripped down piano and singer ... RAW! And then there is the jazzy blues song "Good King Joy" that starts off magically majestic with a "Joy To The World" instrumental before slowing it down to some bluesy "Good King Wenceslas" and a very powerful performance by a male vocalist who sounds as if he's added a little country twang to his performance. But man is it in your face powerful. James Brown-ish. There are also a couple tracks that feature children's choir's which as gitchy as it sounds adds a very haunting yet angelic vocal performance for "Promises To Keep and "Star To Follow" (It's so good it makes you understand why they'd castrate young boys to keep their voices pure in the old days. ... OK it just was barbaric). "Star To Follow" is intermixed with an older male choir that plays on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman" with a drums, bass and piano accompaniment and a very catchy rhythm. Ever since Savatage's "Handful Of Rain" album the band and TSO love the repetitive multiple vocal melodies first introduced on "Chance". Mind you they do it very well! And "Star To Follow" is very sing a long-ish.

On top of the acoustic renditions of "Silent Night" and "Nutcracker medley" "First Noel" as well as some post scripts done finger pick style on a clean electric at the end of the album "O Holy Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" that are all performed splendidly, we have the big progressive instrumentals that made TSO famous. "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" is the often overplayed rendition of "Carol Of The Bells" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen". It is dark and chilling and powerful. "A Mad Russian's Christmas" is a medley of The nutcracker. It has the heaviest intro TSO have done, with a killer thrash style riff mixed with chilling piano rendition of Nutcracker Medley's. Then we get blasted by the main theme which is exhilarating and brooding all at once. A fantastic blend of a classic Suite. My favourite of the instrumentals though is "O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night" which is a faithful and stirring instrumental of the 2 melodies seamlessly mixed. What I love most is the falling sustaining electric guitar note at the end that's held through some inspiring piano tinkling. It brings a tear to my eye everytime. "First Snow" is an original tune and is enthusiastic and magical.

I've only really scratch the surface of what listening to a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album is like. They have created a very unique sound and very passionate and heartwarming concept. I'm surprised this has not been done before. All I can say is that Trans-Siberian Orchestra is rock enough for metal heads to enjoy, but sticky sweet enough for your Grandmother as well.

Coming up next, however, is a look at the Christmas season ... In Chaos ... Stay tuned for "A Brutal Christmas" ...

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Nu-View Of Christmas ...

Back in highschool when I was more into folk music and classical and before I started discovering folk and classical influenced metal, I would browse new age/classical sections looking for unique music and cheap. One of the albums I found was both unique and cheap AND Christmasy too! I loved the song "Greensleeves" and was eating up any rendition of it including "What Child Is This?" which is the same tune, just different lyrics. But I bet you all figured that out already.

The album is Tom Stacy's "A Nu-View Christmas" featuring the English horn. This was before the listening stations and such at record stores, so I wasn't sure what I'd be getting. I was, however, pleasantly surprised. All the music is arranged by Rob Mathes and Tom provides the melodies with the English horn. Though the accompanied music seems somewhat "programmed" at times, Tom Stacy brings soul to the music using the English horn to carry the melody and create a playful feel, while at the same time almost haunting.

The album starts off with a new age jazz sound on "First Noel". A touch of Tangerine Dream and a little Jean Michel Jarre. It's sweetly enchanting with stand out percussions. "O Come All Ye Faithful" and "Jingle Bells" continue the jazziness both playful yet faithfully done. And the album closes with a magically new agey jazz high-lighted rendition of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"

Funk plays into some of the songs thanks to a driving bass and drums accompaniment. "Deck The Halls" is Funkily melodic and passionately soulful with its melody lines ending with some wonderful sustaining notes that crescendo in a powerful outro. "Good King Wenceslas" is bass driven back beatin' funk tune that's ... well ... funky! Very good tune and very nicely done here with touches of progressive rock and new age.

The album is intermixed with some nice somber pieces to which shows off Tom Stacy's abilities. The first of these is "O Holy Night" which is a haunting somber piece. "O Christmas Tree" gets a little darker, but the two tracks that shine for me are "Silent Night" and "What Child Is This?". "Silent Night" is dark and brooding with bass end piano and Tom's haunting melody. The song builds to a majestic ending. And my favourite track (of course) "What Child Is This?" which has a chilling new agey intro and Tom's moving and haunting English horn melody. However, what I like too about this track is that Tom holds back on the horn and let's Rob mathes take a bit of the spotlight. Rob's arrangement here is brooding and full, with strong new age influence. I also like the dual horn melody that has the horns playing the melody with one following just behind the first. It adds a chill that sticks with you.

This is an album that is just a little different than most Christmas music and that really appeals to me. This is not brilliant per say, but it makes for a fun Yuletide listen around the holidays. If you want especially unique Christmas music than come on back for a review of Trans-Siberian Orchestra's first of the Christmas Trilogy ...

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Twas The Concert Before Christmas ...

Where do I begin. Well for those who are unfamiliar with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, let me fill you in. TSO is the brainchild of Paul O'Neill with Robert Kinkel and Savatage's Jon Oliva as partners in composing and producing. To go back, Paul and Robert were involved early on in Savatage' career (Paul a producer and Robert a studio keyboardist) both brought in around the "Hall Of The Mountain King" era and moved Savatage into a new direction. "Prelude To Madness" is a precursor to the classical music transposing that would be the core of TSO with a brilliant metal onslaught of Edvard Grieg's "Hall Of The Mountain King". It would be years before TSO was established.

I remember as a young metal head right into Savatage and unlike a lot of what I heard of old 'Tage fans I loved the new concept power metal albums they were making (Streets, Dead Winter Dead, and Poets And Madmen). As I browsed the detailed Savatage website (though now it's pretty much unused) I kept seeing references to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I had no idea what this was about, until I came across a TSO CD at a local HMV store (not the big one). Needless to say I picked it up and recognized Paul O'Neill's name from the Savatage albums and saw that it was Christmasy and figured I'd enjoy this and purchased it.

And did I ever. I then preceded to purchase the first album (the one I saw was their second release.) and again was blown away. The music is Christmas carols transposed with electric guitars and such and creates a sort of power metal progressive sound. The carols/classical pieces tend to be instrumentals. The story of the album concept is pieced together with original tunes sung by a number of guest vocalists from all varieties of music and have a power ballad feel with some jazz and blues thrown in for balance. These are heartwarming, powerful albums that transcend genres and creates a feel good musical experience.

This also carries over into the concerts. I've now seen about 5 shows and though the presentation has gotten bigger, it was that first show that will always be dear to me. The first half of the performance is an abridged version of their first album "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" concept and is the story of a man in a bar on Christmas Eve who befriends (unknowingly to the man) and Angel who takes him on a journey around the world in search for the true meaning of Christmas. Oh sure it's a sappy story, but C'mon! It's Christmas! Over the years and with the completion of the trilogy of Christmas albums, new songs have been added to the story replacing others, but the concept is still the same. So needless to say the first half is a little repetitive, but for once a year I still enjoy the gooey feeling it stirs in me

After some short introductions and silly jokes by none other than resident TSO/Savatage guitar player Chris Caffery, the second half of the performance, where the real fun is, begins. No more story, just free reign of choice TSO songs off the Christmas albums and their one non-Christmas album "Beethoven's Last Night". The band just let's loose and has fun.

Now I've already taken too much time as is, so I'll give you the highlights of the show. The musicianship is impeccable and the vocal talent is great. As far as singers go my favourites are Jennifer Cella (the blonde) who performs "Promises To Keep" with such gusto that it stirs me to tears. She belts out the song without any silly vocal acrobatics, just sheer power. I'm reminded of Ann Wilson of Heart with a little Amy Lee from Evanescence. She also leads in "Christmas Canon Rock" which I'll talk about later. The other stand out vocalist was "Diamond" Daryl Pediford who sadly passed away in 2004. He was a little guy, but man did he have chops and I am Thankful to have seen him perform twice. He brought a raw grit to his songs and a playful passion that envelopes the room and leaves us all mesmerized. Mind you his replacement Jay Pierce has really come into his own and blew me away this year. And though I love the show, I must say that my favourite TSO song "Old City Bar" is just butchered in concert by Steve Broderick who adds vocal acrobatics when the song needs to be bare bones and heartfelt, but I've accepted that each year it will be ruined and I'm not so upset anymore.

That standouts in the music are when I first heard "Christmas Canon Rock" a few years back. The only version was the child choir and straight up piano you hear on the radio a lot these days "Christmas Canon" which is awesome, but I'll never forget when they performed the rock version as I called it, I damned near melted in my seat. Absolutely brilliant and again, Jennifer Cella's vocals were strong and powerful. It wouldn't be till fall of 2005 with the new album that I could finally listen to it whenever I wanted instead of just once a year. Although they've changed up the mix "A Last Illusion" off of "Beethoven's Last Night" was awe inspiring seen live with it's mix of "Flight Of The Bumble Bee" and "Ode To Joy". Now they switch to some other song which eludes me at this point after "Flight ..." and it just isn't the same ... ah well. And lastly on "O Come All Ye Faithful/O Holy Night" I remember anticipating the final note that is a falling sustaining note which hangs in the air and is hard to explain, but so moving that I can feel my heart swell as the note just lingers and fades. Alex Skolnick (of Testament fame the one with the gray in the hair) played it perfectly that first year I saw them, but since has flowered up the ending with some virtuoso stuff, though good, is not as passionate. Sorry one more thing. TSO also has been performing Carl Orff's "O Fortuna" from Carmina Burana the last few years which is to be on their upcoming non Christmas album "Night Castle" which is dark and heavy and purely spine chillingly brilliant. If Orff had electric guitars this is how it would have been performed. I've loved that piece for years so when they announced it coming up next I damned near crapped my pants ... Seriously ....

Special mentions to go out to the magically captivating narrator Bryan Hicks (the bald guy) whose baritone voice transcends reality and takes the audience on the same journey the man in the bar goes on with the Angel. I've also been lucky enough to have Savatage drummer Jeff Plate on our tour who blasts through a fantastic drum solo during the second half that is inspiring. And lastly soprano singer Tany Ling is brilliant to watch live singing "Queen Of The Winter Night". She's performing operatic vocals while traversing the stage with more energy than anyone else there. Such enthusiasm and talent, it's a joy to watch her perform.

OK that's enough. If you get a chance to see Trans-Siberian Orchestra live, do it. It is a glorious experience and fun and exhilarating. I'll continue watching their concerts and anticipate their "Beethoven's Last Night" tour whence "Night Castle" is finally complete.

Up next is an album that's uniquely Christmasy ...

Thursday, December 07, 2006

One Night In Kiev ....

OK. Well I'm back from Vegas .... Great time! And I am about to embark on my Christmas theme soon. It should have been this week, but what can you do. I will end this run of extreme folk metal with the Christian band Holy Blood from Ukraine. Now the album I'll be talking about now is not quite as folky as I remembered, but I think I confused it with their follow up release which took on a very folk feel. But for now let's discuss their debut "The Wanderer".

"The Wanderer" is rather a brutal death/black metal album with folk stylings, but emphasis on brutal. "The Wanderer" begins with the majestic, Manowar like orchestral opener "Bogatyr Gates In Capital Town In Kiev". We are then blasted with the title track which is a fast black metal tune with fine riffwork and touches of death metal vocals. "The Poor World" is also a blistering black metal song with touches of melody both with vocal lines and guitar solos and sometimes both at once. "In The Lake Of Fire" takes the fast black metal stylings and mixes it up with some heavy chunky riffing along the lines of Einherjer and brings a folky/viking feel.

The folk elements are sprinkled throughout the songs "On Drakkares Of Fate" and "Cold Winds". "Drakkares ..." is a keyboard heavy black metal tune with the keys carrying the folk melody along with some folk like riffwork. "Cold Winds" is a Metallica like thrash song with black/death metal vocals and viking style choruses and folkily melodic soloing. A fine and brutal track.

We also get heavy death metal like songs with "The Warrior" and its thrashy riffing and deathy black vocals and "Kill" a crunchy keyboard heavy song that's dark and aggressive. "Morning" is folk heavy with flute solos and a little blues style soloing and the acoustic number "The Dnieper".

The stand out songs are "Cold Winds" which is wickedly heavy and great guitar work and my favourite "In The Lake Of Fire" which is a fine mix of speedy black metal and heavy riffing. I have to mention the remix of "Kill" at the end of the album (which is good so you can hear the whole album and stop it before this track). This is an ethnic flavoured techno industrial death metal mix ... with a little gothic black metal feel. Ya .... think Nine Inch Nails with a little White Zombie and a touch of Atrocity. Interesting yes, does it work? Debatable.

Overall Holy Blood's "The Wanderer" is a fine album, brutal and aggressive without losing melody and the band only improves with their folk heavy follow up. But that will have to wait ....cause!?! ... yes, this weekend I'll start my run of Christmas theme music. I'll probably only get about 4 reviewed, but I'll be starting with a look at the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert I just attended. For the uninitiated, they've just completed their Christmas trilogy of albums in the fall of 2005 and perform heavy metal style Christmas music. Very powerful albums .... with just a little cheese .... Stay tuned!