4   +   8   =  

A mix of the melodic and the metal is the highlight of this week’s reviews fest as we feature some ear-bleeding Geordie noise from Arcite (pictured) and a future AOR classic in the shape of Work Of Art‘s latest offering.

Plus we review and rate new releases from Epigene, Toby Hitchcock, Xorigin, Jorn, Skull Fist, Edguy, Saltatio Mortis, Twilight Singers and Arkona

Work Of Art – In Progress (Frontiers)

If AOR is meant to be the most pure and accessible of all rock’s many guises then In Progress represents the finest example of a genre in rude health right now. Pinching bits and pieces from the standard bearers – Toto, Journey, Giant and Asia – this is possibly the most perfect record you’ll hear all year and for many it will be just a little too perfect.

Skip to The Great Fall first if you want an addictive and incredibly assured snapshot of this class act but on this evidence there’ll be no rapid descent anytime soon for WOA. In fact this lot could be the AOR cream that rises to the very top and stays there for some considerable time.

Never Love Again might showcase a sobering lyric but it’s a truly uplifting tune and Edge Of the Storm – replete with a ‘chink’ sound effect to complement the line ‘everything breaks into pieces’ – is a perfect example of the brilliant Bo Reiner production. Looking for the Mutt Lange of the future? WOA might have found him (but only after Westlife and The Backstreet Boys!).

This is an outstanding record which deserves acclaim across the board. WOA will never win a support slot with The Big Four but their finely crafted melodic rock deserves more than mere comparison with a slew of legendary 80s chart stalwarts. In Progress is the future! SR

rushonrock rated: 10/10 Art For Art’s Sake

 

Toby Hitchcock – Mercury’s Down (Frontiers)

Rousing opener This Is The Moment serves notice of this magnificent vocalist’s considerable talents and Mercury’s Down sees Toby Hitchcock finally arrive as a major force on the melodic rock scene in his own right.

An accomplished apprenticeship with Pride Of Lions and the considerable respect of his peers mean very little in the great scheme of things – this often underrated frontman needed a major volume of work under his own name to turn potential into proven quality and this is the album which does just that.

Strong Enough could have been lifted from the latest Journey record except it’s probably just a shade better than anything you’ll have heard from the Arnel Pineda-fronted line-up. But Hitchcock is no one-trick pony and there’s a U2 feel to the awesome, soaring How To Stop as our man on a mission plays trump card after trump card in a bold bid to eclipse label mates Work Of Art (see above).

This is a grittier, edgier take on AOR but will still appeal to those rekindling their love affair with this year’s must-hear retro genre. Hitchcock has served up a joyous, passionate and powerful rock record which simply needs the ultimate sound man and a word perfect audience to translate into the best live show you’ll hear all year. Let’s hope that event’s not too far off. SR

rushonrock rated: 9/10 Hitchcock-sure

 

Xorigin – State Of The Art (Frontiers)

Frontiers have pulled out all the stops to ensure summer 2011 ends on a high for fans of melodic rock and had this been released at any other time it would have won warm praise from all quarters. Yet set against the brilliance of Work Of Art and Toby Hitchcock it’s a fact that State Of The Art sounds pretty ordinary by comparison.

Some classic AOR riffage, coupled with a neat percussive twist, on lively opener Can’t Keep Running promises something special and there isn’t a dud song here. In The Blink Of An Eye is a silky smooth singalong anthem which would have crashed charts worldwide two decades ago and Xorigin’s debt of gratitude to 80s synth-led rock is repaid with interest across State Of The Art. It’s their strength and their weakness.

Where their label mates mix retro cool with a modern twist, this Scandinavian powerhouse ultimately focus too heavily on the former. If there’s one criticism of this album it’s that there’s a pervading sense of insincerity – formulaic might be a criticism too far but State Of The Art could do with an identity all of their own to underpin a sound borrowed from early 80s AOR trailblazers and late 80s East Coast hair metal heroes alike.

The dodgy intro to This Is It is more Stock, Aitken and Waterman than stock AOR and the vocal again sounds dispassionate, forced and ultimately frail. It’s a low point which, thankfully, isn’t replicated and yet Xorigin need to concentrate on quality control if they’re to transform good records into truly great ones. SR

rushonrock rated: 7/10 Back To The 80s

 

Arcite – We Lie Awake EP (Self-released)

Arcite position themselves on regional borderlines with this debut EP release and we don’t mean geographically.

The Newcastle act have relished this first milestone with an evident hunger for bigger things and thankfully this has transferred onto record in impressive fashion, landing them in the exact position they need to be.

We Lie Awake proves that Arcite have found their footing in the studio and with producer Dan Weller (Malefice, Rise To Remain) to the fore, the trip to London was obviously worth it.

Asylum begins the EP and reveals the five-piece able to intertwine brutal verses with a melodic pulse lying underneath. With vocals shimmying from high-pitched screams and lower grunts to a matter-of-fact, informative style, there’s enough tenacity and variation to continually refresh each track.

A bastion of polished guitar lines help this along tremendously – In My Family showcasing a penchant for increasingly thrashy verses with hints of death metal. The metalcore sentiment in their breakdowns outstretches further than many reputed acts of the genre, with smidgeons of technicality surfacing in deliciously refined portions.

Arcite have cemented their credentials as a top regional metal act by splicing an intoxicating mix of styles – resulting in a concise debut. They’re offering this EP online for free so go pull your finger out and support some local metal worth listening to. CR

rushonrock rated: 7/10 Awake The Giant

 

Epigene – A Wall Street Odyssey (Amammi Music)

Without giving too much away about the story that ensues throughout this rock opera – it focuses on Yossarian, a struggling Wall Street investment banker disillusioned by capitalist greed, surmounting financial debts and his progressively out-of-control life.

Together forming the band, husband and wife Sean Bigler and Bonnie Lykes started Epigene in 2000. They certainly have ambition that has to be appreciated but in opera terms this is leagues away from Ayreon’s 1993 metal opera classic Into The Electric Castle.  But who could expect it to come close with the guest-list of established musicians on the revered record?

Its hugely tongue-in-cheek lyrics are made from familiar dystopian concepts but nevertheless the 95-page mixture of graphic novel, lyrics and story make for one hell of a booklet. Although it is to be expected there are great dishes of cheese in the album.

Pop rock with big prog edges is about right and I’m not sure if it’s the best form of music for truly telling such a story – especially with the concepts involved. Epigene’s dreamy sound doesn’t do enough to fully describe Yossarian’s working conditions – both extreme states of living (country and city) should be not simply divided in parts like they are, but also schizophrenic or at least polar in sound to reflect this.

I Eat The Concrete is one of the better tracks. It’s fair to say the lyrics are slightly ridiculous and on the melodramatic side at times – hopefully delivered with a slight wry intention. They’re direct and as accessible as their soun, but backed with some nice twists of jazz in there too.

On the second disc Isis Conspiracist mashes spoken word with some spacey electro to bolster the atmosphere and make it stand out from the rest.

Their tuneful ideas nod to more commercial Yes and could even attract Super Furry Animals fans who can digest layer upon layer of even more cheese.  But truth is, their musical credence doesn’t match the nature of the story – which is a captivating yet cliche-led ride with snippets of various dystopian prophecies, contrasting concepts of Illuminati control, spiritual enlightenment with Orwellian leanings.

By the end, it’s safe to say that A Wall Street Odyssey: The City, The Country And Back Again can be extremely nauseous if overplayed – it’s a one listen, back of the shelf job that may surprisingly be enjoyed at a later date, only to cyclically resurface and be enjoyed again. CR

rushonrock rated: 6/10 Epigene Therapy

 

Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps (Napalm)

Formerly of the now-defunct Cincinnati rockers The Afghan Whigs, Greg Dulli started his side-project Twilight Singers more than 10 years ago now in a move to emphasise his more personalised depths.

After concentrating for some time on his work with good friend and esteemed grunge musician Mark Lanegan in The Gutter Twins, Dulli finally releases album number five, more than five years since 2006’s Powder Burns.

Released on the famous grunge label Sub Pop, Dynamite Steps is a modest attempt from the Twilight Singers – it’s filled with lush moments of harmony, built on conservative measures of soft, indie instrumentation in an emotive aurora.

There’s generally a bleak mentality swimming amongst these set of songs and it’s executed well most of the time. First track Last Night In Town is a beautiful shady opener that confronts us with soothing yet melancholic melody.  Be Invited swoops into a haunting, ambient backdrop of slurring violin and synth with a deep, enveloping bass line.

Waves changes the record’s established sentiments with energetic, noise-bent, indie riffing and distorted vocals making it stand out as one of the finest on the album.  Regrettably, the impressive three track start weaves in and out of musical successes throughout.

Dulli’s voice has a lulling effect: it’s not consistently clean-polished or perfectly in tune but strangely it fits well.  It’s almost like his wailed and strained higher notes annotate a personal struggle and a stark desperation – Never Seen No Devil being one of the best examples of this in its saddened nature.

The Beginning Of The End isn’t as interesting as it’s title would suggest unfortunately, and title track Dynamite Steps whirs by in tame fashion, finishing the album in a sleepy fuzz. CR

rushonrock rated: 6/10 Twlight Of Dulli’s Career?

 

Arkona – Slovo (Napalm)

A few months ago Russia’s Arkona outed the Stenka Na Stenku EP in anticipation of this first full-length since the success of 2009’s Goi, Rode, Goi!.  We were left marginally dissapointed but nevertheless curious as to what the six-piece would do next.

What we can gather from Slovo is that Arkona have stepped up their game again. The title track from the EP Stenka Na Stenku is included but after we deciphered it last time round it suggested that Arkona were heading to an increasingly jovial state – like another modern Korpiklaani. Hearing it within the context of this record it’s revealed to be an anomaly somewhat.

Arkona are moving back to where they belong, and then some more. Arkaim‘s acoustic finish leading into Bolno Mne‘s (I’m In Pain) introduction leads one to believe they’re taking a small hint of Moonsorrow to utilise their pagan heathenry.

But while the song is epic, there’s a difference in the array of structures and the way they sonically carry it out. Arkona’s aggressive blastbeating and desperate growls is decorated with swathes of lamenting violin that beautifully channel a deep sadness.

Progressing onward, the introduction of Leshiy abruptly snaps you out of any feelings of sorrow with upbeat accordion that gradually morphs into what – for lack of a better term – is a weird mosh song lacking impact in it’s overly-dramatic theatrical feel.

After a short two-minutes of spoken-word in Predok (Ancestor), Nikogda (Never) rallies back to form with a surprising intro of groove riffs that transcend into big synth choirs, even bigger harmonising and the talented, terrifying primitive death growls of frontwoman Masha Arhipova.

Arhipova is vocally versatile and even though Arkona are musically eclectic this really helps to avoid any monotony in Slovo or ruin sections that wouldn’t easily suit her intimidating jagged vocals. But when Arhipova channels a spiritual energy of old, those low, raw edged primitive shouts spout from the bottom of her lungs like a cross between Alexander Krull and Ville Sorvali. Title track Slovo hints further at a seed of Moonsorrow influence, although they don’t make it overly obvious. Regardless, it’s one of the best tracks there.

Arkona have cut the length to 57-minutes and for the best part created an impressive album that most certainly outdoes their brief EP attempt and puts them on course for better things. CR

rushonock rated: 7/10 In The Slovo Lane

 

Saltatio Mortis – Sturm Aufs Paradies (Napalm)

Lavishly over the top and steeped in history, medieval metal is one of the strangest off-shoots of folk metal to emerge in the last 15-years. Predominantly originating from Germany, bands like In Extremo and Schandmaul have helped pioneer this beyond-quirky, utterly audacious form of music and Saltatio Mortis are not excluded for their contributions to the sub-genre.

Almost bizarrely, Sturm aufs Paradies ( Storm Of Paradise) not only marks a milestone ten albums into their existence but proves that there’s still room for a type of music that should really have ran out of creative juices by now.

The first half of this record gives you more than you would first anticipate, but the second half is incredible – it simply blows you away.  There’s usually always a duff song somewhere and that comes in a double block, with third track Ode An Die Feindschaft and fourth Eulenspiegel – both not suffering terribly but perhaps less interesting in relation to the rest of the record on second listening.

Not usually the kind of songs with a delicate touch, track-seven Gott Würfelt Nicht is where the superior level begins. It has a genuine ballad-like constitution, subtley crafting a beautiful crescendo from surprisingly astute, lovely balance of folk instruments creeping in to assist Alea der Bescheidene’s vibrating bravado vocals.

So easily and often there’s two extremes with medieval themed folk metal – the folk instruments are used as gimmick or they’re overused – but this bold Bavarian bunch prove that experience has carved them into a fluent, self-assured and potent entity.

Nacht Jahr Und Tag and Orpheus both mark out the brilliant balance in production too, with a heavy set of metallic riffs inter-twisted solidly among some expert hurdy gurdy and bagpipe playing. Spiel Mit Dem Feuer will have you bouncing in its dancey introduction and chorus, but the verses are perfect reflection of just why Saltatio Mortis are good at this – they can muster verses with splashes of ancient sadness yet make them so catchy you want to sing along.

Previously we would have held the notion that 13 tracks of such music might tip one over the edge, but it’s left us with a different legacy – we’re getting the kilts out, heading for the hills and gearing up for a metal crusade. CR

rushonrock rated: 8/10 Mortis-fied

 

Edguy – Age Of The Joker (Nuclear Blast)

Forming in the early 90s, vocalist Tobias Sammet and guitarists Jens Ludwig and Dirk Sauer were all just 14-years-old when they decided to materialise their love for music by initialising Edguy.

As far as German power metal goes, Edguy are up there battling amongst the heavyweights of the genre. But let’s face it, in recent times their ascent (or descent) to hard rock sounds has shown them in a different light.

Hammerfall may have tried it recently and left our souls feeling a tad withered but, regardless, Edguy’s new shade of light is beaming with bright ideas, brimming confidence and bold execution.  Age Of The Joker can even be appreciated by the most staunch traditionalists out there.

Pandora’s Box proves Edguy have developed that hard rock riffery.  But while this is becoming more prevalent, there’s still a focus on that colossal, theatrical effect on chorus’ with an eye for the spectacular.  The use of symphonic keys is less apparent, but they’re there – just lower in the mix and probably making more impact than you would first realise.  Rock Of Cashel is a surprise in it’s mid-section with upbeat folky guitar lines proving their open mentality.

Breathe, however, is a different flavour from the off.  Electronic keys bombard us in the intro and give way to some emotive verses before re-emerging astutely – only once after, assuring that the song doesn’t become overrun with melodrama.  That’s what can be appreciated here – yes, the traditional power metalling edges make it epic, but their fusion of blues-tinged hard rock grounds it somewhat.

Faces In The Darkness is a mild disappointment for the almost Motley-esque harmonising effort on chorus, tipping the balance to sound a little cheap and definitely disposable in the memory bank.

Closing the album is the starry-eyed ballad Every Night Without You, which would probably attract the average Aerosmith nut, but definitely magnetise those who ask for double cheese with their power metal.

It seems an increasing number of power metal addicts are getting involved in a retro 80’s assault, and some are falling victim while others reap rewards.  A good chunk of fans will find themselves disillusioned – audience alienation is inevitable and the a volume of haters will surface on release day.

But Edguy dabbled stylistically some time ago, and they’ve only sought to continue picking berries from a number of closely related genre trees – making an effective swoop over a Venn diagram of trad metal, power metal and hard rock.  Kudos – they not only have the balls to do it, but it works for them on Age Of The Joker. CR

rushonrock rated: 8/10 Head Guys

 

Jorn – Live In Black (Frontiers)

There’s a reason Jorn Lande shared a stage with Glenn Hughes throughout last year’s Heaven And Hell tribute set to Ronnie James Dio. The powerful vocalist does a tremendous impression of his pint-sized hero on Live In Black – whether he means to or not. Should Tony Iommi opt to revive Sabbath for one final time then it’s Lande, rather than Ozzy, who should stand behind the mic.

This is an immaculately produced live record allowing the former Masterplan main man to demonstrate exactly why he has shifted more than two million records worldwide as the voice of various melodic metal titans. At times it seems a little too clean – lacking the rough and ready quality which makes for the (im)perfect live album.

Encouragingly for Lande one of the highlights of this 17-track set is Spirit Black, the title track from his most recent solo album. A perfect fit for his deep and moving voice, it proves that the talented Norwegian is improving with age and if his songwriting still lacks some subtlety then his craft as a pure performer ensures this is a rollercoaster of a rock release.

Bar the odd cliched call to arms separating anthems, this is the perfect antidote to the over-commercial Dukebox greatest hits package where remastering of early-years standards only served to rob the Lande classics of their initial charm.

Live is where it’s at as far as Jorn is concerned and all he needs now is that big-name act to come calling to cement his name among hard rock’s elite. It’s a position he truly deserves. SR

rushonrock rated: 7/10 Jorn Again. And Again.

 

Skull Fist – Head Of The Pack (Napalm)

In an age where Steel Panther stand tall at the forefront of a new spoof rock revolution, bands like Skull Fist tread a fine line between heartfelt passion and self-deprecating parody.

It’s impossible to ascertain where this bunch of retro metal nuts belong but if they’re not laughing at themselves then Head Of The Pack guarantees everyone else will be laughing at them. It’s so ridiculous in places that any metal fan sucked in by the old school metal traditions will surely begin to wonder whether the wool was well and truly pulled over their eyes three decades back.

Naming a song Ride The Beast (think Number Of The Beast mixed with Ride The Lightning but please don’t expect the ultimate metal mash-up) is daft enough. Kicking it off with a Hammer Horror-style spoken word intro ensures this wacky old ditty descends into farce even before the first chords have been struck.

And there’s much more where that came from. Commit To Rock and No False Metal offer up ear-piercing mayhem in spades and by now you get the picture. This isn’t just old school it’s pre-school and the immaturity of it all is what makes this such a cracking record.

Disappointed by Black Tide going all serious? Wish Steel Panther would turn it up to 11? Missed Maiden on their latest world tour? Switch on to Skull Fist and all your metal Christmases will come at once. Just don’t go near this if Dream Theater, Mastodon and Opeth are your bands of choice. SR

rushonrock rated: 8/10 Fist Pumping

This week’s reviewers: Simon Rushworth, Calum Robson.