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…or so I hear some of our younger readers smirking.  I don’t know, does power metal and gothic metal (with industrial leanings) count towards the AOR/”classic rock”/vintage “hair metal” thing generally referred to by that somewhat dismissive (but not entirely inaccurate) terminology?

Whatever, like grousing about Intersectionalist whack jobs by use of the simpler acronym SJW, it’s still referring to the same folks, the same sound, the same ballpark so that everyone’s on the same page.  If you hear the phrase “Obamacare”, only the most pedantic of folks will correct you that it’s actually “the ACA”…a term few on either side of the argument bother to dredge up anymore, regardless of where these terms originate.  So yeah.  Love it, hate it, or relegate it to “meh…when I’m in the mood, maybe,” you all more or less know what we’re going to be covering herein.

This is about half of what was originally planned to appear under this review bloc, but as we’re going non standard, what the hell…here’s something to catch up on for now, with plenty more to come hereafter.  Maybe this’ll turn into a weekly thing, wherever we are in reviews, that’s what we’ll publish.  Who knows.

So without further ado, we present yet another delve into the world of melodic and oft anthemic working class peans to a better world…or at least a different one to that we’re forced to inhabit.  Allons-y!

NEAL MORSE – Jesus Christ The Exorcist (Frontiers Music s.r.l.) (June 14)

Interesting.

Look, my idea of prog is Goblin (and better, Cherry Red before them). I enjoy a bit of Gentle Giant now and again, and certainly enjoy the proggier end of US power metal…and if you consider Frank Zappa prog, that’s the man I used to refer to as “my second father”…and that’s all you need to know right there.

But like most folks of my generation, I did grow up on (and on rare occasions, appreciate) the likes of Rush, Styx and Kansas as well.  You’ll note I omit most or all of the British prog scene, which Keith Emerson’s Italian horror scores aside, is simply too stodgy, thin and brittle, like one of those tasteless shortening bread bickies they seem to love over there. Does nothing for me, I’m sorry.

Thankfully, this steaming slice of baked in the summer sun Gruyere bears far more in common with hippie ‘rock musical’ Jesus Christ Superstar (always the only of its type I’ve ever been able to abide – despise the musical, the “rock opera” even moreso) as performed by some amalgam of Kansas and Gentle Giant (the latter, at least at points).

Apparently the gentleman in question was a founding member of Spock’s Beard, a band whose name has been much bandied about in circles more friendly to the likes of Dream Theater and Porcupine Tree than yours truly will ever be – my Weird Scenes cohost being only one among many.

What makes his story a bit odd is that he jumped ship after a literally miraculous healing event (look into it – he even makes a direct reference to it on one track here) and went full on Christian rock, as if it were the 70’s and early 80’s all over again (how many of those ‘defections from the secular rock scene’ were from the heart rather than some cheap marketing gimmick during lean times, I leave to a higher authority).

And that explains what you’re about to hear here. I was cringing, expecting yet another Jorn-style subpar “rock opera” about Dracula or somesuch shit, but with an au courant mockery of all things relating to Jesus. Let’s put it on the line right here and now: there is a huge, huge gap between the “religious right” school of “Christianity” and the actual man, teachings and philosophy, and while I wholeheartedly reject anything to do with the former, the ubiquitous slams and slights directed against the latter are at best childish tantrum throwing, if not downright boring at this point.

So expecting the absolute worst (see prior paragraph)…I was shocked to hear this ersatz take on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s classic (which got them both excommunicated, mind!) delivered in actual earnest. Better? It’s well done, and most akin to some long lost Kansas album. Score.

Is this the sort of thing I’m likely to revisit often or spend my days blasting out of the car speakers? No, not really.

But is it a breath of fresh air to hear something this polished, accomplished and listenable delivered without an underlying agenda (unless it’s an attempt to bring some light into an increasingly black world…how horrible!), and with a few likeminded fellows (Matt Smith of Theocracy and John Schlitt, Head East veteran and replacement vocalist in Petra back in the day) cameoing to boot.

It is what it is, the corpsepaint crowd will growl and spit, the bible thumper crowd will wave their hands in the air and cry tears of joy.

But for the rest of us, the lay of the land is as such: fans of the guy’s earlier work should be happy, Kansas fans will definitely be…and anyone waiting for decades for a worthy attempt at creating something similarly humanizing and dramatically solvent as the great Jesus Christ Superstar (though without its camp or desperate Woodstock rock gravitas) will find an interesting attempt (if admittedly something of a tangenital take thereon) right here.

I liked it well enough, definitely. Nice work, sir.

CHAOS MAGIC featuring Caterina Nix – Furyborn (Frontiers Music s.r.l.) (June 14)

And straight from Christianity to Chaos Magick…why does that have a strangely familiar ring?

Here we have a surprisingly accomplished sounding up and comer out of, of all places, the blackthrash hotbed of Chile (!)

Just to prove the point, she gets paired with the woman who fronted the all too brief glory days of Sirenia, Ailyn Jimenez, and doesn’t get blown out of the water. She also does a track with Lords of the Black’s rasping frontman Ronnie Romero, and more likeably with the smooth toned Tom Englund of Evergrey fame, and never once does it sound forced.

You’d have to wonder if they were all on friendly terms in studio, given the warmth and well matched pairings here. Though it’s far more likely it’s just files being sent back and forth digitally, it’s that sort of feel…and a damn good album in the gothic metal vein (I’d say “symphonic” but the sound is far too direct and intimate to suggest that sort of bombast and drama, her voice too midrange alto to even hint at operatic affectations).

Surprisingly solid, quite catchy and concise, and something of a powerhouse vocalist to boot.

I ask you. What the fuck’s NOT to love here?

Top marks, wouldn’t mind a physical copy of this one for the collection (hint hint).

JORN – Live On Death Road (Frontiers Music s.r.l.) (June 14)

Erstwhile Masterplan frontman Jorn Lande is back again, thankfully not in “rock opera” mode this time around.

We’ve covered his works and collaborations several times in these pages, but this is the first time we’re running across tracks like the Dokkenesque “lonely are the brave”, the almost Vescera-era Loudness of “life on death road” or the UDO vibe of “stormcrow”. He even does a few strong covers – Christopher Cross’ “ride like the wind” (also covered quite well by Saxon back in the day) and Jake E. Lee era Ozzy’s “shot in the dark”.

Wait…you mean this guy actually had good songs in him?

Seriously, count me as utterly flabbergasted here.

With all the iffy material we’d covered, who knew the guy used to drop actual quality tracks like those? I mean, sure, there’s plenty of less exciting stuff herein as well – one off the oft mocked Swing of Death, two middling Dio covers (“mob rules”, “rainbow in the dark”)…but even the Dracula one sounds better live than it did in studio, much like 2013’s “traveler”, also present herein.

Again – surprisingly strong live effort, the band’s got some real crunch and a lot more energy than you’d expect, and Lande belts ’em out pretty damn convincingly between some literally tired and sardonic bits of stage patter (which leave him sounding like an old man stopping for a few breaths of air during a particularly strenuous stroll through the park – seriously, they’re kind of embarassingly dispirited and droll).

But come on, given what we’ve seen and covered from Lande over the last 8 years?

This fucking album is positively stellar.

Recommended, if nothing else than to show the man is capable of and has delivered much better material than we ever thought he was capable of.

TIMO TOLKKI’S AVALON – Return To Eden (Frontiers Music s.r.l.) (June 14)

Former Stratovarius mastermind brings another installment of his Avantsia-esque “metal opera”.

Chances are you won’t recognize any of the guests this time around, save the venerable Anneka Van Giersbergen of The Gathering fame…but a Mariangela Demurtas (who’d apparently done a stint with yawn inducing gothic metallers Tristania at some point) delivers a rather nice turn on closer “guiding star”.

Aside from that, Tolkki essays his usual Malmsteen worship (“promises”), a bit of Elvenkingish folk metal lilt (“return to eden”), more than a hint of Delain on “we are the ones” and a bit too much of the balladeering for our tastes (“hear my call”, “godsend”, “miles away”). He even makes the Avantsia connection of all this pretty damn pointed with the vintage Edguy of “now and forever” and “limits”.

Make no mistake, there’s plenty of crunchy riffing, some of it delivered at appropriately Euro power metal break the speed limit tempo, and more than enough of his patentedly pleasant to impressive soloing to keep fans of the Strat (and/or classic Edguy, for that matter) happy…and it’s nice to hear Van Giersbergen in fine form on “we are the ones” (seems like he only allows the ladies one good track apiece, don’t ask me what that’s about).

I walked in expecting something a whole lot more bombastic, lentamente and boringly cheesy…something more like Avantasia.

But while there’s plenty of obvious connections here (cough), Tolkki doesn’t appear to have it in him to deliver a whole album of strangely sleep inducing if admittedly overblown nonsense – even “godsend” bears a lumbering zombie march menace that (combined with Van Giersbergen’s assured vocal turn) still manages to deliver. And that’s one of the damn ballads.

Damn good stuff, surprisingly diverse in appproach (in case the above didn’t make that perfectly clear)…and well worth looking into.

VISIONATICA – Enigma Fire (Frontiers Music s.r.l.) (July 12)

Talk about the beast whom everyone thought long since dead, returned to life…is gothic/symphonic metal trying to make a comeback at last?

Sure enough, here comes one of those occasional attempts at relighting the fire quashed somewhere in the early millenium. I’d call it around 2006, with Visions of Atlantis’ Trinity and Krypteria’s Bloodangels Cry and My Fatal Kiss being the last isolated gasps in a genre that had otherwise already seen its final days.

Ever hopeful for its return to prominence, we’ve offered praise to a handful of bands over the years, each and every one of whom offered the merest glimmer of hope, only to have it quashed by subpar subsequent efforts or an utter lack thereof. Put quite simply, we held down the fort waiting for Godot, who never did arrive.

So it is with a far more jaundiced eye that we view efforts like Caterina Nix’ Chaos Magic or Visionatica’s Enigma Fire…albums which a decade or so prior would have joined a veritable army of worthies in the field, rather than being rare attempts to set up camp and build a fortress that never seems to stand or be joined by other wayfarers of kind.

Even so, this is pretty damn strong stuff, with frontwoman Tamara Amedova dropping a sub-Liv Kristine by way of pre-Silent Force Sharon den Adel light and faerielike soprano over the grinding, almost Leaves Eyes gone slightly industrial in leaning chunky but simplistic riffing. There’s a feel of Basil Pouledoris’ Conan to tracks like “dance of fire” and “to the fallen Roma”, but with an added touch of Arabic mysterioso that almost suggests a bit too much Nile fandom on the off hours. Regardless, it works, and quite well at that.

This genre has always been about drama, melodic hooks with big choruses and gorgeous frontwoman with high, operatic leaning vocals, and while neither band covered this month is exactly challenging the likes of Tarja Turunen or early Simone Simons here…they’re still pretty damn decent, and have the look and sound to make it, with the band and songwriting to match.

Chaos Magic may be the more catchy and power metallish of the two…but Visionatica is far closer to template, and could easily have fit in among the greats 12-20 years ago.

Again…very good stuff, and looking forward to hearing more from these ladies, no question.

BILLY SHERWOOD – Citizen: In The Next Life (Frontiers Music s.r.l.) (July 12)

Appropriately mellow to elevatorish concept album from the current Yes bassist. It’s some business about a time traveller observing various figures in global history, and entirely recorded and performed by Sherwood himself.

If you were big on 80’s Yes (think Big Generator and prior), you may well love this one – it’s got that Jon Anderson/Chris Squire feel all over it, which only points to just how good a choice Sherwood must have been to replace Squire in that band.

But this stuff doesn’t even bear the saving darkness of the best Alan Parsons Project, so I refer the reader to remarks about this sort of British prog under the Neal Morse review.

It’s perfectly fine for the type, mind…but not my thing at all.

GRAHAM BONNET BAND – Live In Tokyo 2017 (Frontiers Music s.r.l.) (July 12)

What’s with Graham Bonnet and these retro live albums lately?

I mean, look – I love the guy. What he brought to otherwise tired bands like the post-Dio Rainbow, MSG, Akio Shimizu era Anthem and Impelliteri (not to mention his own Alcatrazz, at least on the Malmsteen and Vai albums) cannot be underemphasized – the man was a melodic rock genius, with a real ear for the hook and the ability to belt ’em out with the best of ’em.

But he’s becoming another Udo Dirkschneider, with each successive month bringing yet another installment of self-worship on some stage or other. Think he’ll do mostly Alcatrazz, or will he include a track or two from Assault Attack or Down to Earth as well? Perhaps a random solo cut or two, likely from Line Up?

Yeah, it’s kind of hard to get excited about this sort of thing anymore…particularly when the man keeps dropping the same product month after month with little variation beyond the occasional shift in backing band membership.

Still love ya, man.

HOLLOW HAZE – Between Wild Landscapes And Deep Blue Seas (Frontiers Music s.r.l.) (July 12)

Nick Savio, briefly of post-Rhapsody Fabio Lione project Eternal Idol, returns to his earlier act with new backing (and a new frontman to boot).

Oddly, there’s not a lot to say here, as there’s precious little to distinguish this album from any dozen others in the lighter end of the European power metal scene.

The vocals are midrange and smooth, the tempo’s straight down the middle, there are hooks (mostly confined to the choruses) and the playing is fair if unspectacular. Essentially, if you’ve listened to more than a dozen power metal bands from Europe, particularly those of more recent vintage…you’ve heard several that sound much like this.

Now is that necessarily a bad thing? Not really…but with little to distinguish themselves, it’d be hard to see Hollow Haze really making a name for themselves among the crowd, either.

Respectable also-rans, these folks get the participation trophy and a consolation prize, maybe a t-shirt saying they were there, too.

MIND KEY – MKIII – Aliens In Wonderland (Frontiers Music s.r.l.) (July 12)

Whoops, red flags right from the first sentence of the promo writeup.

“a band that meld(s) the sound of bands like Dream Theater, Symphony X, Evergrey”.

umm…well, Evergrey’s OK, I guess…

Sounds like they’ve had their share of issues (and hence a hiatus), so kudos for making a credible comeback to the world stage (or at least those that lean Euro style AOR with occasionally pronounced metal leanings).

That noted, what do you get here? Well, some late 80’s style riffing (the title track, “non-existence”, “pure heart”) and some very early 80’s AOR multitracked/gang harmony vocals at the choruses are pretty winning, and Emanuele Collela drops a few interesting leads, albeit mostly in terms of his use of different tones and stylistic flourishes rather than strictly in terms of “fretboard skills”. He won’t wow ya with speedy runs, but you probably won’t be bored hearing the same thing track after track, and that counts for a lot right there.

The big problem here is the midsection of the album, a good 5-7 song stretch of maudlin balladeering and mellow vibes that feels like Elvis has just left the building and left the second string to play while everyone makes their way out the doors. Oh, yeah, there’s the Dream Theater they wanted to emulate. “Winning!”

…I fucking hate Dream Theater.

At least these guys have a little something going for ’em, mostly centered around the title track and to a lesser extent, the other two tracks aforementioned…but yeah.

This is what you get when you set the bar intentionally low.

Dream Theater.  pfft.

Their wives had more talent…and a much better album under their belts.

…next?

MOTANKA – S/T (Napalm Records) (June 7)

Strange Ukranian act that mixes Lord Wind-style traditional instrumentation with Fauntslike space rock tranciness to mostly ambient effect.

They never really build any momentum or kick into even the lowest of gears until “air”, take it a step or two further for “des’u-horakh” and get all nu metal for the annoyingly out of place “oy-ty-moya-zemle”, before going straight up indie rock for “bosymy-nizhkamy” and “voroh”, with the remainder of the running time cycling through the above to increasingly lesser effect. Look, another ambient one. Oh, here’s another indie track. Oh, yay, another nu metal “stomper” (yawn).

It’s hard to say what to make of these guys, really. They show some real promise on “air” and “des’u…” and the indie tracks are respectable enough…but the ambient tracks go absolutely nowhere, and do we need yet another fucking Slipknot clone? While they do try to keep all their balls up in the air throughout, far too much of the album consists of that sort of trash for anyone’s comfort – at least anyone over the age of 14.

This is a band that desperately needs to pick a style and go with it. I can tell you what works here…it’s up to them whether or not to pursue that end and drop the bullshit, or continue to straddle some weird multi-genre fence like this.

Has some interest, but definitely a strange choice for the label to do an (apparently partial…everything else we see is still stuck in the stream-only rut) return to the fold with.

Theatre Of Tragedy – Remixed (AFM Records) (July 12)

You know, when all that shit went down with Leaves Eyes a few years back, I, like many other fans of Liv Kristine, was really hoping for a reunion with the since-faltering Theatre of Tragedy, who hadn’t delivered anything of note since her departure from the fold back around Assembly – something that gothic/symphonic metal bands are far more prone to than other genres when their frontwomen and/or main songwriter hit the road (examples abound, not worth wasting a few paragraphs listing ’em all here).

Unfortunately, while there’ve been persistent rumours of some activity on that front, Liv has become ensconced in guest appearances and (of all things) a backing gig with her far less talented sister’s act Midnattsol. Still holding out hope.

What you get here is exactly what the title says: a bunch of dance/industrial remixes of Theatre past tracks. Predictably enough, it’s only the Liv tracks (and a small subset of those, to boot) that actually work: “lorelei” and “machine” are both quite club worthy, with “envision” probably working for the house crowd and “let you down” for the more industrial types.  Beyond those? You’re on your own, kid.

But in terms of three of those four tracks (sorry, never was much of a house fan)? Damn good takes on some already killer material.

Consider it a very good EP with a lot of padding.

And guys? Kiss and make up, already.

Lordi – Recordead Live – Sextourcism In Z7 (AFM Records) (July 26)

Ah, the Euro GWAR, who can best be described as “visually GWAR…musically Powerwolf”.

As you might expect from this description, the appeal of this band is twofold: get loaded and laugh at the guys in silly monster costumes sweating latex allergies into their skin night after night, and enjoy the simplistic but undeniably catchy singalong tracks. For a drunken festival crowd? These guys have got it all!

Now, if you ask me, hey, do you like Lordi? I’ll probably laugh in your face. I mean, seriously, what are you, 12? The image is ridiculous, the songs so instantly winning but goofy, it just screams “comedy” and “pop music” all at once.

You’ve read us mocking Powerwolf enough in the past for much the same reasons…though regulars will also be quick to recognize that we’ve recently (as in late last year) really come to appreciate them for the sheer cheese (their last few albums and bonus content are well worth the time, if you can stomach all that Euro power metal Sabaton gone faux-satanic werewolfy goofiness). So the bottom line is the same with Lordi: “fun, catchy…but really fucking stupid.”

The only question here is, how good is your sense of humor, and how much do you enjoy a bit of a singalong?

I think you already know where we stand on that.

Hoist that beer high and sing along to goofy ass songs like “living in the house of ghosts!”

Riot V – Live In Japan 2018 (AFM Records) (August 2)

Well, here’s an oddity. Todd Michael Hall, late of Jack Starr’s Burning Star (specifically the excellent comeback album Stand Your Ground) and recently of the post-Mark Reale Riot (nee “Riot V”, where he fronted the similarly excellent comeback album Armor of Light last year) does his damnedest to fill the shoes of the amazing Tony Moore in this live document that captures an attempt to recreate the entire Thundersteel album plus assorted other Riot ‘hits’ onstage.

Now, Thundersteel is an amazing album. Somewhat unheralded back in the day, when all the dust of history settled, this one album shook out as one of the undisputed classics of the genre, particularly if you’re talking classic US power metal.

Now, most of the band is departed for other shores, Reale is no longer with us, Bobby Jarzombek has gone on to Fates Warning and John Arch and Mark Edwards (also of the Yngwie Malmsteen/Ron Keel Steeler and Lion fame) appears to have thrown in the towel many years ago. But as is so often the case with these reunion acts, one original member tries to carry on the band name and legacy, this time bass player Don Van Stavern (formerly of the similarly killer San Antonio Slayer)…and given Hall’s decidedly retro vocals and success at reviving both Starr and Riot’s long since lost careers, he’s pulled the right man for the job in Hall.

There’s really not much more to say here – it’s a pretty good recreation of Thundersteel’s long since past glories, plus you get some Armor of Light tracks and assorted others along the way (honestly, those two albums are all I ever cared for with Riot’s regularly shifting “are we classic rock, or are we full on pedal to the floor metal?” career).

Hall sounds great, it’s a pretty uptempo live album (well, hey, this is Thundersteel we’re talking about…) and, uh…yeah.

Wake me when they drop another studio album – if it’s half as good as Armor of Light, I’m ready to dig in.

Narnia – From Darkness To Light (Sound Pollution) (August 2)

Hey, look who’s back!

Yep, it’s modern day Christian metal standard bearers Narnia, here with yet another slab of European melodic power metal goodness.

We’d covered their self titled three years back almost to the day, and gave ’em due props – this is some damn good stuff.

And those figuring they’ve consigned themselves to some ghetto where their only tourmates would be the likes of Stryper are dead wrong – power metal on both shores has always been far more accepting of “white metal” leanings than other genres. In fact, these guys are probably better known for sharing stages with the likes of Sonata Arctica, Yngwie, Dio, Priest, you name it.

All you black and death metallers and ‘occult rockers’ are always going on about how “lyrics don’t matter”, but that only seems to apply to one side of the fence. Fair’s fair, kids. Some of us don’t mind hearing from either side of the metaphysical fence, so long as the music’s good. Selah.

Now, I have to say, this is a slightly different Narnia than we heard last time around – less of the full on Sonata Arctica/Helloween/Iron Savior style speed (with one notable exception: “the armor of God”) and a lot more midtempo crunch and balladeering than we remember from their last visit to these pages.

Even so, there’s some clean, emotive vocals, crunchy guitars and at least Styx level hooks to go with all that proselytizing…I’d just say this one was more “prog rock” and of the ilk of, say, Saga than it ever gets full on catchy, anthemic or power metal. In that respect? No question this one’s a bit of a step down from the self titled.

But hey, if you liked what you heard last time around, or similar acts like Theocracy, you should be fine with this one as well…just expect a softer, gentler approach here.

As such…a bit of a disappointing shrug of the shoulders, particularly after a three year wait.

Hopefully next round will see ’em back in fighting form.

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