December 29, 2011

Album Review: "Hell Frost" by The Unguided

Redemption and second chances don't come easily in the music industry, especially in more recent years when one-hit-wonders and single-release artists are becoming more prevalent than ever before. It becomes even more difficult when artists need to use new names or form new bands in order to find that redemption. Such was the path for vocalist Richard Sjunnesson after his departure from modern melodic death metal group Sonic Syndicate. Disgusted by the group's changed sound - a change which was forced on them by Nuclear Blast Records, no less - and wanting to return to his roots, Sjunnesson decided to form his own group that would take on Sonic Syndicate's older style and let it grow naturally. The resulting group became known as The Unguided, and with this group, Sjunnesson definitely achieved his goal.

October 30, 2011

Album Review: "Th1rt3en" by Megadeth

Amidst the resurgences of Metallica and Anthrax and the genesis of an entire new wave of thrash metal around the world, Megadeth has been consistently and quietly releasing solid albums for the past ten years. The problem has been that the group's new albums end up being outshined by other new albums, from either their peers (in the case of 2009's Endgame, it was passed over by critics in favor of Slayer's World Painted Blood) or newer, more vibrant metal bands with large followings (such as 2004's The System has Failed being outclassed by Mastodon's Leviathan). It's likely not what Dave Mustaine envisioned for the band's return from hiatus in 2004 and subsequent signing with Roadrunner Records in 2006. Nonetheless, Mustaine and his cohorts are still making great music and keeping classic thrash relevant in the metal community. They've certainly accomplished that on their thirteenth studio album, appropriately titled Th1rt3en. But there is also plenty about the album that makes it different from its predecessors.

October 22, 2011

Album Review: "American Capitalist" by Five Finger Death Punch

There is a very important reason why Five Finger Death Punch has essentially become the face of metal in America. In many ways, their outward appearance personifies every stereotype that pop culture makes about the modern-day metal listener, just as much as their music matches the preconceptions made about metal by most non-metal listeners. The group's first two albums, The Way of the Fist and War is the Answer, were chock-full of meaty riffs, wild guitar solos, guttural screaming vocals, and emotionally-charged lyrics about individualism, rage, and darkness. And as the group's album sales went through the roof, the face and voice of metal invaded the tranquility of pop culture America and refused to leave. War is the Answer was cemented on the Billboard 200 for 92 weeks following its debut at #7, which is a nearly impossible feat for a metal band in the era of downloaded music. It was only logical to believe, therefore, that Five Finger Death Punch's third album would be just as popular and do similarly well.

How unfortunate, though, that the third album, American Capitalist, is not on par with the group's previous work. Saying it's not on par isn't even an accurate description, though. The album isn't wholly bad – in fact, there are plenty of good things to say about it. But the things that are wrong with American Capitalist are so glaringly obvious that they're hard to ignore and harder still to forget.

October 20, 2011

Album Review: "IV" by Maylene and the Sons of Disaster

The crunch and grime of Southern metal is attempted by many and mastered by few. The few that have made it their constant trade, like Clutch, Melvins, and Black Label Society, are responsible for inspiring a generation of new artists that have begun to make Southern metal a more popular genre again. Of greater interest, though, are the groups that have taken Southern metal and fused it with other styles to generate wholly new subgenres in the past decade. Groups such as Every Time I Die, He is Legend, and The Showdown have dared to tread where few others would even imagine possible, and they've done so with great success. Another group deserving of praise in this category is Maylene and the Sons of Disaster, whose fusion of metalcore and Southern metal was considered innovative and unique on their very first album. Now on their fourth full-length, the Georgia-based group has cemented that reputation, and is now focused on expanding their horizons via some intriguing experimentation.

September 18, 2011

Album Review: "Worship Music" by Anthrax

The Big 4 - Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax - were the kings of thrash metal in the '80s. Nothing was more prevalent in American metal than those four bands. But as time passed and music changed, the Big 4 changed as well, each taking a different direction in attempts to stay relevant and popular. Anthrax encountered the most difficulty of the four bands, and their releases became less and less frequent with time, even though the band seemed to be doing fairly well with vocalist John Bush. Then, after 2003's We've Come for You All, Anthrax suddenly disappeared from the public eye. There was always news of the band working on new material, but nothing came to fruition, not even after the band's brief stint with lead singer Dan Nelson and the attempts to release Worship Music in 2009. It took the band's reunion with singer Joey Belladonna to finally bring this album to life, and with it, Anthrax hopes to revitalize their career and remind everyone what made them part of the Big 4 in the first place.

September 3, 2011

Album Review: "Drifter" by Heartsounds

Rock music is the source of so many offshoots that it's often easy to forget how closely linked certain genres and subgenres are at the core. Only after sampling an extremely vast set of different rock-inspired styles does it become easier to recognize the similarities that exist among punk, alternative, metal, indie, and hardcore. These similarities are the reason why bands like Heartsounds exist. The punk rock quartet was born out of the ashes of melodic death metal group Light This City, following their breakup in 2008, mostly due to financial difficulties and what vocalist Laura Nichol summarized as a general dissatisfaction with the metal scene in general. At that point, Nichol and drummer Ben Murray decided to shift their focus to their new musical love - melodic punk in the vein of Bad Religion and A Wilhelm Scream. Their debut album Until We Surrender was a decent beginning for the new band, and sophomore effort Drifter displays growth and an overall tighter focus for Heartsounds.

July 18, 2011

Album Review: "When One Wakes" by Triphobia

Very few high school bands are taken seriously or considered to have potential for long-term success. Traditionally, a high school band is an opportunity for a musician to get the first taste of band structure and to decide if the group dynamic fits their musical vision. It seems that Kinnelon, NJ-based group Triphobia didn't get that message, though, because this group of high school seniors already plays with more passion, skill, and integrity than some bands twice their age. Their 2009 EP The Hourglass exhibited a band overflowing with potential, only needing slight refinement and maturity to attain widespread recognition and greatness. Both refinement and maturity have been realized on the group's debut full-length album, When One Wakes, on which Triphobia evolves from a talented hard rock act to a more focused progressive rock group.

July 17, 2011

Album Review: "Downcast Theory" by Downcast Theory

The New Jersey rock scene is one of the most fiercely competitive locations in the country. Bands arrive on the scene quickly and gain a huge following, only to disappear soon after as another band takes over their niche. It's a testament to the level of talent in the region that so many bands originate there, but for a band to thrive and advance beyond the area, they need to have something more than just musical proficiency and practice with the current trend.

The members of Downcast Theory are intimately familiar with this fact, as they have watched many of their peers and friends in other bands come and go since the group formed in 2007. The release of 2009's Damaged Calm started Downcast Theory on the right path, but they were still looking for their "something more". It appears that they've found it, though, with the release of their self-titled album this year. Downcast Theory is a solid hard rock that blends the best current trends with the excellent tried-and-true methods of the past fifteen years in the genre.

June 22, 2011

Album Review: "Darkness in the Light" by Unearth

Consistency is an under-appreciated quality in the world of heavy metal, and for any band striving for consistency, it becomes harder to maintain as more music is written and more albums are released. From the venerable Massachusetts metal scene, practically every band the region has produced has faltered somewhere along the way, including scene godfathers Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall, and All That Remains. The only band from the area left with an unblemished record is Unearth, the group that has virtually always been the exception to the rule. When their three big contemporaries strove for melodicism and accessibility, Unearth chose to get heavier, more technical, and more intense. Their last three albums - 2004's The Oncoming Storm, 2006's III: In the Eyes of Fire, and 2008's The March - have all served as testimonies to the sheer, unbridled excellence that Unearth always produces. The group has returned with another statement of greatness, Darkness in the Light, proving that consistency does not equate with being formulaic.

May 10, 2011

Album Review: "The Unseen Empire" by Scar Symmetry

When a band experiences any significant membership change, they usually get a one-album grace period, during which they are afforded a chance to work out any issues resulting from the change. After that grace period ends, if the band cannot hold the interest of their established fans, then those fans usually abandon the band. This is especially true with vocalist changes, since many vocalists are the most recognizable members of their respective bands.

This is the reality that has faced Scar Symmetry since 2008. After releasing their 2008 masterpiece Holographic Universe, lead vocalist Christian Älvestam abruptly left the band, causing a massive backlash among fans. Many critics regard Älvestam as one of the best vocalists in all of modern metal, and rightly so. His guttural roars and screams are the antithesis of the beautiful melodies he sings, and very few singers are capable of reproducing his vocal performances. Perhaps the greatest indicator of his talent, though, is the fact that Scar Symmetry needed two singers to replace one.

Roberth Karlsson and Lars Palmqvist had some humongous shoes to fill when they stepped into the roles of co-lead vocalists for Scar Symmetry. Karlsson had little experience in such a vital position (as the brief frontman for Edge of Sanity in the late '90s), while Palmqvist had never before been in a band with any degree of prominence. Their performance on 2009's Dark Matter Dimensions convinced many fans that Scar Symmetry was still in good shape, but many others remained skeptical, calling for Älvestam's return. And now that the one-album grace period has passed, fans will judge Karlsson and Palmqvist even more harshly than before.

May 3, 2011

Album Review: "Circle Regenerated" by Norther

Norther suffered a harsh loss in 2009, when lead vocalist, lead guitarist, and primary songwriter Petri Lindroos left the band. The reason for his departure was obvious, as his commitments to folk metal group Ensiferum were much more time-consuming than those with Norther. Given Ensiferum's recent growth in success, it also made sense for Lindroos to stick with the more popular band. However, Norther was left in an extremely precarious position, as three vital positions within the band were vacated, with few conceivable options for filling them. Thankfully, though, the Finnish group was able to adapt. Rhythm guitarist and backup vocalist Kristian Ranta, who had co-written a number of songs with Lindroos on both 2006's Till Death Unites Us and 2008's N, assumed the primary songwriting role for the growth of the band. Norther also found two new musicians that were already veterans of the Finnish metal scene to join the band. These things have all led to Norther's newest studio album, the appropriately-titled Circle Regenerated.

May 2, 2011

Album Review: "Fake History" by Letlive

There are two reasons why Glassjaw is considered to be one of the primary innovators of post-hardcore. The first is Daryl Palumbo's incredibly distinct vocal style, allowing him to be instantly recognized on any song on which he sings. The second is the group's unique compositional style, which allowed for experimentation while still upholding the precepts of the genre. Most recent post-hardcore bands have attempted to replicate the group's formula, with varying degrees of success. One of these groups is Los Angeles-based quintet Letlive (sometimes typeset as letlive.). The group started out in the underground, but their third album, Fake History, ignited a lot of hype about the group when it was initially released by Tragic Hero Records in 2010 (and then re-released by Epitaph Records in 2011). However, whether the album truly deserves the accolades it has received is still open to debate.

April 26, 2011

Album Review: "Celestial Completion" by Becoming the Archetype

Christian progressive metal group Becoming the Archetype has consistently released high-quality music since their humble beginnings as Nonexistent Failure in the early part of the decade, and then as The Remnant for a further two years. They've benefited a great deal from the input of excellent producers on each of their three full-length albums following their final name change. With the help of Tue Madsen (Terminate Damnation), Andreas Magnusson (The Physics of Fire), and Devin Townsend (Dichotomy), each Becoming the Archetype album has been better than its predecessor, becoming more progressive and well-balanced in sound each time. It was understandable, therefore, that some people were confused and/or worried when the band announced Matt Goldman as producer for the group's fourth album. Better known for his work with post-hardcore groups such as Underoath, Four Letter Lie, Vanna, and Oceana, Goldman seemed to be an odd choice for the Georgia-based group, and some worried that it might be the first major misstep for Becoming the Archetype.

April 10, 2011

Album Review: "The Discovery" by Born of Osiris

Born of Osiris was one of the first bands to break away from the deathcore craze in favor of technically-infused death metal. The Illinois-based band had an edge over most of their contemporaries in this endeavor, though. As one of the only deathcore bands at the time to use keyboards, Born of Osiris easily transitioned out of their deathcore roots after their 2007 EP, The New Reign. Just in time for their first full-length album, 2009's A Higher Place, the group reconstructed their sound on their own terms and made a huge impact, landing at number 73 on the Billboard 200 charts in its first week. This established Born of Osiris as a heavyweight group in the world of metal, and also paved the way for their second album. The Discovery is a solid record with a number of unexpected twists and turns during its nearly-53 minute run time.

April 7, 2011

Album Review: "Beast" by DevilDriver

When DevilDriver rose from the ashes of Coal Chamber, many people expected the same mainstream performance of heavy music that frontman Dez Fafara had used in his former band. Those expectations were fully eliminated by the time DevilDriver's second album, 2005's The Fury of Our Maker's Hand, stormed onto the scene. It was clear that DevilDriver was a completely separate and undeniably superior band, with their no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners approach to metal. With a decade now under the band's collective belt, DevilDriver has figured out their niche sound and the best methods of execution for their unique style of melded groove, thrash, hardcore, and death metal. Their fifth album, Beast, lives up to its namesake by being the fastest, most intense, and overwhelmingly heaviest record of their career.

Album Review: "The Unforgiving" by Within Temptation

Dutch symphonic metal group Within Temptation never fails to make their music interesting. Their fifteen-year career has been a continuous experiment to stretch their limits and explore every aspect of their sound to its fullest. Each album they have released to this point has focused on a different musical element, allowing that element to grow and evolve, and then carrying that growth over to future releases. Thus, Within Temptation's sound has been an ever-changing spiral of refinement and progress. Now, on their fifth studio album, The Unforgiving, Within Temptation has taken the next big step in audio evolution by re-shaping their entire compositional structure and songwriting approach to include new elements and styles. These bold endeavors have yielded a simply breathtaking album with more substance and intensity than anything the band has written before.

March 17, 2011

Album Review: "Metamorphosis" by Mercenary

In late 2009, Mercenary's lineup was sliced in half with the departure of vocalist Mikkel Sandager, keyboardist Morten Sandager, and drummer Mike Park. With the exodus of so many members, most bands would have just called it quits. But Mercenary soldiered on, reducing their lineup to a four-piece group and expanding their roles to cover all instruments. Many fans remained skeptical, though, doubting that the band could reach even a shadow of their former excellence without the Sandager brothers or Park in the band anymore. In particular, the impending absence of Mikkel's soaring power metal vocals caused a great deal of apprehension among longtime fans, as his vocal style helped to shape the band's best material. Surprisingly, though, Mercenary's first outing with their new roster, the aptly-titled Metamorphosis, is a good album with a lot of positive aspects to compensate for the missing pieces.

Album Review: "Surtur Rising" by Amon Amarth

When a band is the most prolific in the world to play a particular type of music, the temptation often exists to rest on one's laurels, release sub-standard material, and generally show disregard for previous success in favor of basking in the sunshine of success. This usually leads to the swift downward spiral and implosion of that band. The only way to avoid that is to do what Swedish titans Amon Amarth have done: never release anything that is less than excellent, always try to be better than your previous material, and never stop to admire past successes. For the better part of two decades, Amon Amarth has been the biggest producer of self-styled "Viking metal" in the world, eclipsing many veteran bands playing a similar style and simultaneously outshining every newcomer that has entered their genre. Their latest opus, Surtur Rising, further cements Amon Amarth in their status as the greatest Viking metal group of all time.

March 13, 2011

Album Review: "Relentless Reckless Forever" by Children of Bodom

No metal band has a more divided fan base than Children of Bodom. Over the course of a career spanning close to 15 years, the Finnish group has repeatedly churned out albums that only exacerbate the fragmentation of their listeners. This is not due to a lack of skill, as the talent of frontman and lead guitarist Alexi Laiho has never been in question. Rather, genre consistency has always been an impossibility for the group, as each album modifies the sound from its predecessor in some way, shape, or form. Starting out as a death metal group with thrash and black metal influences, transitioning into a death-thrash hybrid, and even showing subtle metalcore influences on their last two albums, Children of Bodom just couldn't seem to decide how they should sound. However, the band's newest full-length album, Relentless Reckless Forever, actually takes a few steps back and finds a consistent tone that should please most Bodom fans.

February 27, 2011

Album Review: "Dimensions" by Audio Insight

Progressive rock is a genre that has its tested veterans and its one-shot failures, and very little in between. When a band forms and chooses its direction as progressive rock, that band needs to have a very clear goal in mind, or else they are usually destined to become one of the many one-shot failures. In the modern realm of prog rock, bands like Karnivool, Mutemath, and even Coheed & Cambria have garnered immediate success because of their clear and distinct vision and goal for their sound. So it is with New Jersey's newest three-piece prog act, Audio Insight. These college kids have a firm grasp on the sound they want to create, and while they require some polishing, their debut album Dimensions is an impressive beginning to their career.

February 20, 2011

Album Review: "The Hymn of a Broken Man" by Times of Grace

In every era and genre of music, there are certain albums that define the period and establish trends that everyone else follows. The dawn of metalcore in the early 2000s was defined by Killswitch Engage's monumental sophomore album, Alive or Just Breathing. The perfect blend of harsh and clean vocals from vocalist Jesse Leach, combined with the overwhelmingly catchy guitar riffs written by Adam Dutkiewicz, yielded an album with influential power still felt today. The speed with which Alive or Just Breathing began to change metal was astounding, and only matched by the shocking and sudden departure of Leach from the band in 2002, the same year the album was released. It was an unfortunate ending to what many consider to be the band's greatest era, and while Leach's replacement, Howard Jones, is more than capable as a frontman, Killswitch Engage has not yet released an album that has matched the influence and scope of Alive or Just Breathing.

Which is why Times of Grace, the new collaboration by Leach and Dutkiewicz, is already one of the best bands in modern metal, nine years after the fateful change in Killswitch Engage's lineup. In that time, Dutkiewicz's position as one of the best songwriters in American metal has not changed, as he is still able to craft incredible compositions on guitar, bass, and drums. Meanwhile, Leach has somehow become an even more powerful singer, with an even wider vocal range and more control over his primal screams. These factors come together on the duo's debut album as Times of Grace, entitled The Hymn of a Broken Man. And just like Alive or Just Breathing before it, The Hymn of a Broken Man is already attracting praise and accolades from all over the metal community for its pure excellence.

January 2, 2011

Top 20 Albums of 2010

Yes, it's that time again. The end of the year is upon us, which means it's time to roll out what albums made this year amazing for me. However, there are some people that have pointed out something about my past year-end lists, so let me make a quick disclaimer before I start this shindig:

I listen to a LOT of music. I have a 160 GB iPod that is maxed out with music, and I intend to get another one in the future and max it out as well. My music is my life. That said, I did not get to every album that was released this year in the rock and metal world. In fact, I didn't get to nearly as many as I wanted. I will listen to the albums I missed in the future though. At that time, if I determine that one of those albums is good enough, I will adjust my rankings to accommodate it. Thus, this list may change in the future. If you are not okay with that, I am sorry, but they are my rankings, not yours. I do my best to remain consistent, but that isn't always possible. Unlike last year, when my choices were extremely clear-cut for me, I spent hours agonizing over this list, trying to find a way to order it and decide which albums meant the most to me. It's been reordered and reconsidered more times than I can remember, and as I said, the chance exists that it will be redone again in the future. About the only thing I can promise is that my top three will always stay the same. For everything beyond that, I'm standing by the order that I have listed here for the foreseeable future.

Now that that's out of the way, we can move on to the list itself. As I just stated, I listened to significantly less music this year than I did last year. There are multiple things that factored into that, most of them having to do with the fact that I actually write about the music I listen to now instead of just listening. Either way, if you remember last year's top 200 list and were hoping for something similar, I must unfortunately (unfortunate for me, at least) announce that I will not be reaching that milestone. Hell, I have a long way to go before I get to even half of that. However, to make up for that fact and my lack of reviews for several weeks, I will give you an extended best-of list for this year.