Short Cuts: Yob, DragonForce, Circle II Circle

CD Review: Yob – Clearing The Path to Ascend
Neurot
All Access Rating: A-

Yob - Clearing the Path to Ascend 2014
Ascension is, undoubtedly, part of the plan for Yob, as the Oregon doom-metal destroyers prepare the release of their first full-length for Neurosis's Neurot label.

An ambitious work, full of cataclysmic guitar riffs, writhing dynamics and long, slow death marches into bleak, unforgiving sonic territories, Clearing the Path to Ascend is alternately ponderous and tumultuous, ethereal and alien. And as prone as Yob is to doling out methodical, malevolent poundings like "In Our Blood" and "Unmask the Spectre," it's the ferocious tempest "Nothing to Win" – the drumming is superhuman – that truly awes, as does the trio's supernatural atmospherics.

Comprised of only four tracks, the shortest of which clocks in at 11:37, Clearing The Path to Ascend is nightmarish and intense, but it's also a daunting listen, although the variety of vocal treatments – the primeval shrieks and growls sometimes giving way to sinister whispers – captivates, adding interesting textures to what is already a strangely hypnotic and enveloping blackness. Yob is on a righteous path.
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Dragonforce – Maximum Overload
Metal Blade Records
All Access Rating: B+

Dragonforce - Maximum Overload 2014
What DragonForce does to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" on the British power-metal dynamo's latest Metal Blade Records release Maximum Overload won't win them any friends among country music traditionalists.

An odd choice to say the least, given their fondness for video-game sounds and electronic blips and snorts, this version of the Cash classic is easily the most bombastic ever recorded. Making it their own, in DragonForce's nimble hands, "Ring of Fire" actually seems built for speed, transforming into a soaring, frenetic epic of high-velocity guitars, jackhammer blast beats and Mark Hudson's clear, spiraling vocals.

Interestingly enough, it's the first cover song to be included on a DragonForce record. And there are other noticeable differences between the aptly named Maximum Overload and its predecessors, this outing being heavier and more thrash-oriented, as stampedes "The Game," "No More" and "Defenders" – it's no accident that Trivium's Matt Heafy contributes powerful backing vocals to all three – set pulses racing with adrenaline-fueled riffing.

Nevertheless, this is DragonForce we're talking about, and, as per usual, iconic shredders Herman Li and Sam Totman throw themselves headlong into an endless series of blindingly fast, hyper-kinetic guitar solos while glorious melodies fly overhead. Maybe DragonForce has become formulaic and predictable in always going for the big climax, but every track on Maximum Overload is a whirlwind of dazzling activity – "Three Hammers" and "Symphony of the Night" being the album's purest specimens of full-on, triumphant power-metal found here.

With their fantasy-based lyrics and "Guitar Hero" shredding, DragonForce is not everyone's cup of tea, but their attention to detail, overblown production values and insane technical skills make for an entertaining ride. It's like Disneyland for guitar fanatics.
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Circle II Circle – Live At Wacken (Official Bootleg)
Armoury Records
All Access Rating: B+

Circle II Circle - Live at Wacken
(Official Bootleg) 2014
The plan was to play as much of Savatage's classic concept record 1998's Wake of Magellan at 2012's Wacken Open Air as humanly possible, given the time constraints of festival performance slots.

That was the last Savatage record Zak Stevens sang on before departing from that league of progressive-metal masterminds. Revered for its compelling story, stormy riffs, rolling emotions and maze-like arrangements, Wake of Magellan is a theatrical tour de force, a rock opera that connects two real-life incidents – the Maersk Dubai Incident and the story of Irish reporter Veronica Guerin and her tragic journalistic crusade against drug trafficking.
Circle II Circle doesn't shrink form the challenge, even if they do only manage to fit in eight of the 13 tracks on the original LP. His colossal vocals pushed way up to the front of the mix, where they belong, Stevens is a born storyteller, his power and expressiveness adding nuance to an already gripping morality play.

From the uplifting, piano-driven power ballad "Anymore" to the tension-packed pounding of "Complaint in the System (Veronica Guerin)," the golden folk of "Morning Sun" and the sweeping, melodic build of the title track, Circle II Circle follows the winding map laid out by Savatage with a bold, adventurous spirit, paying all due respect to the original source material while, at the same time, breathing new life into it. A rich pageantry of instrumental prowess, resonant sound and wonderful drama, Live At Wacken (Official Bootleg) serves as an ideal companion piece to Savatage's unassailable masterpiece.
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Ace Frehley – Space Invader

CD Review: Ace Frehley – Space Invader
eOne Music
All Access Rating: A-

Ace Frehley - Space Invader 2014
Making his former KISS band mates Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons eat a hearty helping of crow would surely delight Ace Frehley to no end. Dinner is served.

With no easing of tensions in sight between the parties involved, the jilted guitarist, his sobriety having sharpened both his songwriting instincts and his instrumental chops, Frehley lets its rip on the rollicking eOne Music release Space Invader, the follow-up to 2009's Anomaly. 

Digging into his past, Frehley recaptures the raw energy and hard-rock crunch of early KISS and the surprising pop sophistication and vitality of his 1978 solo album – the one that puts all other KISS solo outings of the time to shame – with a tough, rugged title track, an equally ballsy "Gimme A Feelin'" and the infectious glam-rock nugget "I Wanna Hold You." For openers, that's a tough hand to beat – three of a kind comprised of tight, irresistible hooks, bashing drums and searing guitar solos that hit a bulls-eye dead center every time.

More metallic and heavy, "Change" and "Toys" smolder and stomp, as Frehley's riffs bite down hard and draw blood. His claws are out, and these tunes have an air of confidence and a trashy swagger born of past successes and little concern for the critics he's so eager to silence. The Zeppelin-like boogie "Inside the Vortex" seems to channel the spirit of John Bonham, while "What Every Girl Wants" updates the sleazy bump-and-grind of the New York Dolls for a new millennium – Frehley always has had a better grasp of what made the Dolls great than the rest of KISS.

A collection of punchy, slickly produced songs that kick like a mule and have a chip on their broad shoulders, Space Invader hardly ever hits a flat note. Even his version of "The Joker," by the Steve Miller Band, smokes. While every one of these tunes now lives in the penthouse suite, it seems they also revel in trawling through the gutter, looking for cheap thrills. They are rambunctious, but rarely reckless – except when Frehley launches into daring, acrobatic leads that like to wander but never go too far afield. Space Invader, with that classic cover art created by longtime Frehley collaborator Ken Kelly, is just a good bit of rock 'n' roll fun, a little wild, a little sleazy and exceedingly satisfying. That crow is getting cold boys.
– Peter Lindblad

CD/DVD Review: Randy Bachman – Every Song Tells a Story

CD/DVD Review: Randy Bachman – Every Song Tells a Story
Independent Label Services Group
All Access Rating: A-

Randy Bachman - Every Song
Tells a Story 2014
The intimacy and warmth of the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in his home town of Winnipeg proved to be the ideal environment for a pleasant evening of storytelling and music from Canada's favorite rock 'n' roll son, Randy Bachman.

Describing his life as "a series of accidents" that he's followed wherever they lead, sharing funny and insightful yarns from a long life in music, Bachman takes a rapt audience hanging on his every word on a tour through the dusty back roads and well-traveled highways of a legendary career. The resume now includes an award-winning radio show called "Vinyl Tap" that served as the inspiration for this wonderful event, captured on a new Independent Label Services Group CD/DVD release called Every Song Tells a Story.

The first stop on this journey: "Prairie Town," a really lovely, nostalgic ode to where he hails from – Winnipeg in the '60s being Canada's version of Liverpool, says Bachman – that appears on his 1992 solo album Any Road. From there, a lighthearted Bachman revisits the humble birth and ascendant rise of The Guess Who and tells personal tales about quitting college, the confused recruitment of Burton Cummings, navigating the treacherous waters of the music industry, his friendship with Neil Young and taking the act to the States, a foreign land where they encountered hippies, surfers, a biker gang and the sociopolitical turbulence of a nation at war in Vietnam.

All the while, as the engaging, self-deprecating Bachman reveals the true stories and inspiration behind the band's biggest hits, he and his backing band – playing on a stage designed to look like someone's living room – perform light, electrified versions of those songs, sliding into the raw garage-rock of "Shakin' All Over," the tender, beguiling ballads "These Eyes" and "Laughing," the sparkling folk-rock of "No Time" and the proto-metal blast of "American Woman" with both gentle ease and reckless abandon.

Sticking to a chronological timeline, Bachman breaks from The Guess Who and finds starting a new project harder than he thought, as he recounts how Brave Belt simply spun its wheels. When all seemed lost, in walked Charlie Fach of Mercury Records with a record deal, and the dark clouds disappeared.

Bachman's relief is still palpable, and the anecdotes he sprinkles in between rugged, driving BTO anthems such as "Let It Ride," "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet," "Takin' Care of Business" and "Hey You" – these live versions still retaining that blue-collar vigor and slamming horsepower that made them hits in the first place – show how ingenuity and dumb luck, as well as a handful of great riffs, lifted the band to the top of the charts. Perhaps Bachman's tale is not the greatest story ever told, but it's a damn good one, filled with plenty of plot twists and surprises. And he delivers it in a manner that stays true to who he is.
– Peter Lindblad

First Impressions: Ace Frehley covers 'The Joker'

KISS guitarist takes Steve Miller Band classic
By Peter Lindblad

Ace Frehley will release 'Space
Invader' on Aug. 19
When the track listing for Ace Frehley's upcoming eOne Music release Space Invader was released, the mercurial ex-KISS guitarist sprung a surprise that gave everyone pause.

It's safe to say that nobody expected a cover of the Steve Miller Band staple "The Joker," but then again, predicting Frehley's next move has always been impossible. After all, who could have foreseen his version of Russ Ballard's "New York Groove," recorded by Hello way back in 1975, being the best thing to come out of the four KISS solo albums of the late '70s?

One of the hotly anticipated records of the summer – especially with the still simmering feud between Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley on one side and former KISS members Frehley and Peter Criss on the other garnering headlines even after all the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame induction awkwardness – Space Invader is Frehley's chance to shut up critics who long ago gave up on him. (eds. note: a more complete review of the record will be posted soon on this site)

Ace Frehley - Space Invader 2014
Earlier this summer, Frehley gave the world a little taste of Space Invader, the follow-up to 2009's Anomaly, by releasing the first single "Gimme A Feelin'" and it's a catchy little nugget of spirited rock 'n' roll fun that cleans up the glam rock of the New York Dolls without completely scrubbing away its grit. Now comes Frehley's take on "The Joker," and it's the one that has people a little nervous. Issued this week, you can hear it for yourself here: http://ultimateclassicrock.com/ace-frehley-the-joker-steve-miller-premiere/

Thankfully, although opinions have been mixed, Frehley's version is a damn sight more lively than the original, moving at a quickening pace as the modern production and big guitar rush breathe fresh life into what's become a moldy, sluggish oldie played way too many times on classic-rock radio. Less organic and earthy than the original, this sleek, updated cover trims away the fat to reveal a tighter, leaner song that now sounds as if it was made for these times. And maybe, just maybe, Frehley's career could be on the verge of a renaissance that few could have imagined.

CD Review: Unisonic – Light of Dawn

CD Review: Unisonic – Light of Dawn
Armoury Records
All Access Rating: A-

Unisonic - Light of Dawn 2014
Some of the parts used in the creation of Unisonic were salvaged from power-metal titans Gamma Ray and Helloween. Others were pried off of fellow German metal machine Pink Cream 69.

Add guitarist Mandy Meyer, more of a six-string mercenary who's worked with the likes of Krokus and pop-prog giants Asia, to the mix, and suddenly, a supergroup is born. This one has a flair for the dramatic.

On the heels of an EP titled For the Kingdom that was released in May comes the bombastic Armoury Records offering Light of Dawn, a thunderous power-metal epic with a touch of glam that's brimming with melodic grandeur, trampling blast beats, theatrical vocals and surgical guitar strikes.

The sophomore release from singer Michael Kiske, guitarist Kai Hansen, Meyer and a rhythm section consisting of bassist Dennis Ward and drummer Kosta Zafiriou – household names in the world of power-metal – rides like the valkyries through stirring anthems "Venite 2.0," "Your Time Has Come," "For the Kingdom" and "Blood" with pummeling urgency, soaring majesty and molten metal riffs and searing solos that take no prisoners. Darkly stylish, with tightly woven strands of dual guitar wrapped around the song's body, "Night of the Long Knives" is caught in between beautifully arranged ballads, namely "Not Gonna Take Anymore," with its building emotions, and a rather medieval "Find Shelter."

Finishing with a flourish, as metallic, fast-paced power surges take over and big hooks are brandished like scythes, Light of Dawn could be less predictable and not as beholden to the past, but such criticisms shrink in the face of Kiske's dynamic, wind-swept vocals and Unisonic's rousing spirit. A new day is dawning for power metal. Awaken to the light of Unisonic.
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Nils Lofgren – Face The Music

CD Review: Nils Lofgren – Face The Music
Fantasy Records
All Access Rating: A

Nils Lofgren - Face The Music 2014
A massive undertaking, curated by none other than Nils Lofgren himself, Face The Music examines with painstaking care the remarkable consistency and craftsmanship of a 45-year solo career of long overshadowed by the masters he's served.

Going on 30 years now, Lofgren's been a part of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, and when he was a precocious 17-year-old unknown fronting the gutsy Washington, D.C., hard-rock combo Grin, Neil Young recruited him to play guitar and piano on Young's classic After The Gold Rush album, thereby starting a fruitful musical relationship between the two.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and Lofgren made the most of it, putting in long hours getting his parts down pat. That tireless work ethic, combined with the heart and soul of a poet, fueled Lofgren's solo artistry, and this is the comprehensive retrospective he's deserved for so long.

Nils Lofgren playing live
Spread across 10 discs – one a DVD of vintage live performances, with two others unearthing 40 previously unreleased songs and rarities – are 169 tracks, hand-picked with care by Lofgren from his albums with Grin and critically fawned-over solo efforts, some of them out of print for years, released between 1975 and 1992 for labels like A&M, MCA/Backstreets, CBS and Rykodisc. And, thankfully, he didn't ignore material he's been putting out on his own Cattle Track Road Records imprint since 1993.

There's not a cynical bone in his entire body of song, where honesty, passion and integrity mean as much as a keen pop sensibility and sparkling production. Stax Records, the British Invasion, countrified blues and elegant folk, early rock 'n' roll – Lofgren assimilates easily when visiting a variety of genres, his songwriting a natural extension of his influences. On top of that, as a guitar player, his economical approach, sure-footed fretwork and tasteful licks never seem needlessly ostentatious or flashy, and yet they never fail to make an impression.

It's easy to see why Springsteen took a shine to Lofgren, the two sharing an affinity for the simple truths and hopeful energy of Heartland rock, as "Girl in Motion" and a stylish live version of "Black Books" could have slipped right into Springsteen's Tunnel of Love without The Boss ever knowing. His version of the Del Shannon-penned "I Go to Pieces" has the rousing spirit of the Springsteen anthems, and gritty rockers "Across The Tracks" and "Secrets of the Streets" shove their hands in pockets full of solid hooks and blue-collar dreams as they wander around Asbury Park, just as the strains of the sublime "Valentine," immersed in soulful longing, escape from Memphis under the cover of night to help lovers everywhere negotiate treaties of raw emotions.

Nils Lofren and his guitar
From his days with Grin comes the summery mood-elevator "Everybody Misses The Sun," an ambling, exceedingly likable romp with a bright chorus and carnival atmosphere that imagines The Kinks' Ray Davies sitting in with The Grateful Dead. Altogether exuberant, "White Lies," with its acoustic guitar jangle, finds Lofgren working out steely guitar figures designed to ensnare listeners, while "I Came to Dance," from his solo days, embraces disco with unabashed joy and drags it into the street.

That's just a small sampling of this bounty, accompanied by a page-turner of a booklet, handwritten by Lofgren and jam-packed with photos, anecdotes, insight and reflections on a life in music. Get lost in it as Face The Music cycles through soft, introspective piano balladry ("Heaven's Answer to Blue"), bluesy slide guitar excursions ("World on a String"), zydeco-infused drinking songs ("Whatever Happened to Muscatel") and grizzled romantic pop contentment ("When You Are Loved"), as well as the usual tight, sharp blasts of well-chiseled, immaculately produced rock that's always been his bread and butter.

As an introduction to Lofgren's catalog, it's a bit overwhelming, but the Fantasy Records box set Face The Music is certainly worth the time spent slogging your way through it. And for devotees, there are surprises galore, as well as familiar highlights. Don't be afraid to Face The Music. This is the good stuff, and there's plenty of it.
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: John Garcia – John Garcia

CD Review: John Garcia – John Garcia
Napalm Records
All Access Rating: B+

John Garcia - John Garcia 2014
The name John Garcia still carries a lot of weight among glazed-over dwellers of the desert/stoner metal community. People there will never forget what he did with the archetypal Kyuss, having blazed rough trails through the most unforgiving of sonic terrain.

There are cults that would kill for the kind of devotion Garcia and the rest of Kyuss have inspired. And although Josh Homme has gone on to bigger and better things with Queens Of The Stone Age, his Kyuss co-founder has not so quietly built an impressive and remarkably consistent catalog of recordings with projects such as Slo-Burn, Unida, Hermano and, most recently, Vista Chino.

That arid, distant voice of his a dagger cutting straight through the sonic haze, vague menace and hypnotic pull of a sub-genre he helped establish, Garcia goes the lone-wolf route on this his first solo album, out on Napalm Records. Leaner and more clean-shaven than other works his name's been attached to, although some of the fuzz remains, John Garcia is a record with a strong pulse and an undeniable affinity for the brawny riffs and catchy hooks of '70s classic rock, as "5000 Miles" sounds like ZZ Top trying to swim its way out of quicksand and the steely, acoustically sketched closer "Her Bullets Energy" reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's brushed folk supplications, with a little Spanish guitar thrown in for good measure.

And while "Argleben," heavy and trance-inducing, is deep-fried in distortion and stuck in great, thick groove ruts – the album is full of them – "My Mind" rides with Steppenwolf into dark skies rumbling with heavy-metal thunder, all the while brandishing guitars wrapped in barbed-wire. Every song on John Garcia is sinister and seductive, sounding mean as hell on the agitated, pounding post-punk engagement "All These Walls." He swims with especially strong currents in the rugged, mid-tempo, swinging hammer "Rolling Stoned," the deliriously infectious "Saddleback" and the spellbinding, serpentine "Flower," as a sense of unease pervades the throbbing "His Bullets Energy," its slashing guitars and unpredictable bass counter melody stalking its prey with murderous intentions and practically begging for a restraining order.

Notwithstanding the sluggish blues of "Confusion" and its equally sedentary "The Blvd," John Garcia crackles with energy and brands its deep, dynamic grooves into your brain. Guests like Danko Jones, Nick Oliveri and Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger – his intricate work can be found on "Her Bullets Energy" – go with Garcia on this vision quest and help him discover his true nature.
– Peter Lindblad

Helstar: Something 'Wicked' this way comes

Going inside the 'Nest' with guitarist Larry Barragan 
By Peter Lindblad

Helstar is James Rivera, Larry Barragan,
Rob Trevino and Michael Lewis
2006 saw the return of Helstar, and what a welcome sight it was. After an 11-year hiatus, the nucleus of the classic lineup of one of the finest power-metal bands the U.S. has ever produced decided it was time to saddle up and ride again.

Birthed in 1982, the raging Texans, fronted by venomous vocalist James Rivera (also formerly of Vicious Rumors), emerged from the womb kicking and screaming on 1984's Combat Records release Burning Star, which set the stage for the fury that was to be unleashed in classic LPs such as Distant Thunder and Nosferatu.

A heavy touring schedule supporting metal heavyweights W.A.S.P., Megadeth, Savatage, Keel, Yngwie Malmsteen and Fates Warning served to spread the fire-and-brimstone gospel of Helstar far and wide. Lineup shuffling killed their momentum, however, and after a series of break-ups, Helstar fell apart, only to be revived again eight year ago.

Since then, Helstar has brought forth an album of re-recorded classics, plus an intense and gripping concert retrospective titled 30 Years of Hel. Then came 2010's Glory of Chaos, a punishingly aggressive testimonial to the technical brilliance and savage passion of a band that still has plenty to say. Released earlier this year, the AFM Records product This Wicked Nest is its evil twin, harnessing the frenzied melodic storms of Helstar's revered '80s material, while packing all the thrashing intensity of Glory of Chaos into an even more volatile and violent cocktail.

In Helstar, guitarists Larry Barragan and Rob Trevino have teamed to whip up a career's worth of heavy, roiling riffs and searing leads, bombing listeners with an assortment of tricks and designs meant to scramble the senses. Barragan recently took time out to talk about the band's latest record, it's glory days of the '80s and what the future might have in store for Helstar in this interview:

With Glory Of Chaos, it's been said that Helstar won't go that extreme again. Was there a point at which it struck you that perhaps that record was a step beyond what Helstar was all about, or do you just feel that Helstar is more at home being more melodic?
Larry Barragan: Never, I never thought that Glory was too extreme. I still don't. I never want to be put in a box were people can dictate what we should or shouldn't sound like. The new album is heavy as f--k, but I wanted to try to expand what we could do with the thrash influence and use, and mean really use, more of James' range of vocals. I wrote a lot of the melodies with that intention. The songs that James wrote the lyrics and melodies to also had that approach.  I think it sets us apart from other bands.  The fact that we have someone that can sing the way James can sing over those heavy riffs.

How has the material on This Wicked Nest been received live, and what do you enjoy most about performing it?
LB: So far I think everyone likes it.  I enjoy it because you do get a little tired of doing the same set after a while.  It's nice to make things fresh.  There are a couple of songs that we haven't done from the new album live that I think we should introduce into the set at some point.

Helstar - This Wicked Nest 2014
This Wicked Nest is still a very aggressive and intense record, and you can really hear it on "It Has Risen." Was it difficult to maintain a balance between creating really punishing, fast, thrash-like material, such as "Defy the Swarm," and stuff that has a slower pace and a darker atmosphere, like "Cursed"?
LB: No actually, it flowed fairly well. I want to say "Cursed" may have been one of the last songs we wrote for the album. So I think by the time we got to it we knew we needed something to change the pace.

"Fall of Dominion" has more of a power-metal feel to it, with those twin-guitar duelings and a huge chorus. It's such a powerful song. Is it more indicative of where the band is at currently and where it wants to go on future recordings, or does it simply fit in perfectly with the band's progression to this point?
LB: I can't really tell you where we're going to be honestly. I don't know what we're going to write next. I think if you start thinking about where you want to take this it may begin to sound forced and unnatural. "Fall of Dominion" is a song that everything just fell into place as it was being written. 

Tell me about making the title track. It has a real sinister feel to it. Did you want This Wicked Nest, on the whole, to be especially unsettling and scary?
LB: Rob wrote the music to that song, and I wrote the lyrics and melodies. And as it was presented to me I thought it had a very chaotic sound to it. You're right in that it is unsettling. I like stuff that has a very dark sound to it. I think we accomplished that.

To your ears, what makes This Wicked Nest more in line with the band's work in the '80s than Glory Of Chaos?
LB: I think some of the more intricate passages in the song give it that nostalgic feel. Other than that I think it's just as balls out as Glory of Chaos.

The classic lineup of Helstar
reunited in 2006
With 30 Years of Hel, what was the most gratifying aspect of that project for the band?
LB: You know the thing about that recording was that it may have not been the best night for us as a band, but it was a special night for us. We had so many friends and family come to that show. It was actually quite moving. I looked out to the left, and I could see my mom pumping her fist in the air. So to me, the actual show was the most gratifying experience. To be able to play songs that we wrote 30 years ago and have people to this day sing along with them is such a special feeling.

In 2006, the core of the classic Helstar lineup reunited. What was it that got you guys back together, and in 2014, looking back, has it gone the way you'd hoped it would?
LB: We were only supposed to do one show to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Remnants of War. It took a life of it's own and it snowballed from there. The next thing I knew we were in the studio and signed again. I really didn't think it was going to go beyond the one show. We've done more that I could have imagined. It's been great.

Helstar toured with the likes of Megadeth, Keel, Savatage, Yngwie Malmsteen and others back in the day. What was your favorite tour and why?
LB: I'll never forget the tour we did with Anthrax. It was the most fun and those guys were so cool to hang with.  

What do you remember about Helstar's first-ever performance?
LB: I remember it was in a garage at a house party. And we were doing "Hallowed Be Thy Name" by Maiden and right at the end of the song, James started throwing up. He had like this mini heat stroke I guess, and he just started puking as the song ended. You couldn't write a better script. It was like, "Oh so you can spit blood, huh? Well our vocalist can vomit on cue!"    

As far as you are concerned, what's Helstar's greatest achievement? And where does This Wicked Nest rank in the entire Helstar catalog?
LB: I think our greatest achievement is just the fact that after 30 years we're still around, still playing, still writing. It's not an easy thing to do but we've done it. This Wicked Nest is a dagger thrown at the heart of all those who thought we couldn't do it. If we didn't do another album I would be happy with this as an ending. Let's hope that's not the case though. Ha!

Short Cuts: Saga, U.D.O., Michael Sweet

CD Review: Saga – Sagacity
earMusic/Eagle Rock Entertainment
All Access: B+

Saga -Sagacity 2014
"These are the days of the improbable," sings Saga's Michael Sadler in "The Further You Go," suggesting perhaps that modern technological advancements are the stuff of miracles.

Just in case they don't lead to the fulfillment of mankind's hopes and dreams, Saga hedges its bets with this piece of sage advice: "Might want to leave a trail of crumbs for the future." Likewise, with Sagacity, the Canadian progressive-rock code breakers' newest album, Saga looks forward, while holding fast to past triumphs.

Engineering some of the most innovative and intricately layered arrangements of their career, Saga combines Ian Crichton's brilliant guitar riffs and sparkling solos with the dazzling keyboard theatrics of Jim Crichton and Jim Gilmour on a collection of songs that trades some of the powerful immediacy of 20/20, their last LP, for deeper, richer sonic experiments and unpredictable melodic movements, such as those found in shape-shifting pieces "Vital Signs," "Luck" and "It Doesn't Matter Who You Are." While the funked-up, heavy grooves and muscular guitars of opener "Let It Slide" have a metallic edge, the bulk of Sagacity is not so straightforward, showing more devotion to the more imaginative, maze-like designs of "Don't Forget to Breathe" and "The Further You Go" – all of it produced to sound as clean and clear as of Saga's recordings, each song a city of tomorrow unto itself.

Throw in a nine-track bonus disc with thrilling, expansive live renditions of classics such as "Wind Him Up," "On the Loose," "Mouse in a Maze" and "Humble Stance," and the topical, thought-provoking Sagacity  exploring themes of modern alienation in age of social media, the satirical, customer-service lament "Press 9" being a prime example, even if it does feel utterly disposable – is a pretty good value for your prog-rock dollar. http://www.eagle-rock.com/

CD Review: U.D.O. – Live From Moscow
AFM Records
All Access: A- 

U.D.O. - Steamhammer:
Live from Moscow 2014
It's a new era for U.D.O., and the revamped lineup, missing Udo Dirkschneider's longtime collaborator Stefan Kaufmann, delivered the goods on 2013's sizzling Steamhammer, a thunderous expression of Udo's vision of what traditional metal is supposed to sound like.

Losing such a vital organ as Kaufmann, a dual threat as a musician and songwriting partner, put U.D.O.'s long-term health in doubt. Working closely with bassist Fitty Wienhold in Kaufman's absence, while bringing aboard young and hungry guitar-shredding transplants Andrey Smirnov and Kaspari Heikkinen, only seemed to invigorate the former front man for Accept, however. And now, with this electrifying two-CD/DVD live release under their belt as well, U.D.O.'s prognosis is excellent.

A 10:52 version of "Mean Machine," with its dynamic drum and guitar solos, highlights Steamhammer: Live in Moscow, recorded with perfectly mixed sound in a place that's always warmly embraced U.D.O. Hard-nosed, brass-knuckled maulers "King Of Mean," "Stay True" and "Burning Heart" sound even tougher and more aggressive in this setting, as does the surging, fully engorged title track, while the dark, enthralling melodies and tight hooks of "Future Land," "Cry of a Nation" and "Never Cross My Way" come into sharper focus, as U.D.O. galvanizes its flock. Worship the head-banging riffs, witness in awe the scintillating dual-guitar dogfights and let Udo's gravelly growl send shivers down your spine. This is U.D.O. at their best. http://www.afm-records.de/

CD Review: Michael Sweet – I'm Not Your Suicide
Big3 Records
All Access: A-


Michael Sweet- I'm Not Your Suicide 2014
Now an author, too, Stryper's Michael Sweet goes solo on I'm Not Your Suicide, and from the heavy, serrated riffing and wailing vocals of opener "Taking On the World Tonight," it's clear Sweet has some inner demons to exercise.

Just as his autobiography, "Honestly: My Life and Stryper Revealed," pulled no punches and candidly copped to a surprising array of weaknesses, I'm Not Your Suicide is at once defiant and strong, but also emotional and raw. And where Stryper's glorious last album, No More Hell to Pay, was, in all respects, a satisfyingly heavy, if more straightforward, juggernaut of Christian metal, I'm Not Your Suicide showcases Sweet's wonderful diversity and creativity as a songwriter.

On this, his seventh full-length studio effort of melodic hard rock, Sweet's ever-evolving mastery of melody and pop songcraft is on full display, as uplifting sermons like "The Cause," the title track and "All That's Left (For Me To Prove)" soar on emboldened, sweeping choruses, like the one that also raises the riff-mongering "Taking On the World Tonight" to such dramatic great heights. And if it's great hooks you're looking for, "Anybody Else" has a bag full of them. Never has Sweet's songwriting seemed this organic or soulful, and that's especially prevalent in the album's rousing vocal treatments, so well-plotted and yet completely free of artifice. So is the introspective ballad "This Time," Sweet baring his soul to the world and yearning for salvation.  

Not one, but two, nicely rendered covers of Neil Young's world-weary classic "Heart of Gold," one featuring an engaging duet with Electra Mustaine, perhaps reveal a folk influence that, prior to this release, had rarely manifested itself previously in Sweet's work, as does the countrified "Country Home." Guest spots from Chris Jericho, Doug Aldrich, Tony Harnell and Kevin Max give rise to the notion that Sweet is tired of being pigeonholed. I'm Not Your Suicide makes damn sure that'll never happen again. http://www.big3records.com/
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Overkill – White Devil Armory

CD Review: Overkill – White Devil Armory
eOne Music
All Access Rating: A

Overkill - White Devil Armory 2014
Not the type to undergo any kind of mid-life crisis, Overkill seems to be growing more potent with age. And their latest eOne Music release, White Devil Armory, is stocked with enough weapons-grade rage to destroy anything that crosses the veteran East Coast thrash-metal syndicate.

Simply unwilling to rest on their laurels after heaps of praise were piled on 2012's The Electric Age, Overkill issues beat down after epic beat down on a punishing new album that's not for the faint of heart. Beware of these mangy, rabid junkyard dogs: their behavior is unpredictable, they're diseased and the steely jaws of their brand of crunching, chaotic thrash will violently chop and tear through flesh without a conscience, snapping bones like twigs.

If possible, White Devil Armory is even more intense, visceral and aggressive than The Electric Age, and that's saying something. Full of adrenaline, Overkill kicks and punches and bites in the street fight that is "Armorist," a hard-hitting affair that takes baseball bats and lead pipes to knees, heads and ribs of anybody that, for one second, thinks Overkill's best days are behind them. And "Where There's Smoke" is even more violent, moving at the speed of a runaway freight train until ending in a smoldering crash.

White Devil Armory is Overkill at their most exciting and brutal, as "Freedom Rings" gathers momentum and races ahead, the drums of Ron Lipnicki stampeding alongside ruthless guitar riffs sharpened to draw blood, just as they do in the swirling sandstorm that is "PIG," a song with enormous hooks, a breathless pace and a tempo shift that nobody would see coming. Heavier and more melodic, but no less scary or tense, the slow-burning "Bitter Pill" is dark and sinister. It's the most well-constructed song on White Devil Armory and one that has all the seductive powers of the devil, while "King of the Rat Bastards" and "It's All Yours" grab listeners by the throat and throw them around like rag dolls.

With the teeth-rattling, venomous vocals of Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth leading the charge and the beefed-up sound of the record managing somehow to keep up with the band's barely harnessed energy, Overkill's dynamic precision is something to behold, stopping on a dime when ready to suddenly change course and the raging guitars of Dave Linsk and Derek Tailer moving in for the kill like sharks smelling blood and erupting into an all-out feeding frenzy at just the right moment. Swim in White Devil Armory at your own risk.
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Yes – Heaven & Earth

CD Review: Yes – Heaven & Earth
Frontiers Records
All Access Rating: B-

Yes - Heaven & Earth 2014
Flashes of the old Yes,the one capable of grandiose symphonic brilliance and sublime pop artistry, appear throughout Heaven & Earth, the progressive-rock institution's uneven 21st studio LP, released via Frontiers Records.

One such display is "Subway Walls," 9:20 of delightful left turns, a jazzy instrumental passage that flexes Chris Squire's muscular bass lines and is gilded by Steve Howe's imaginative, stealthy guitar exercises, and a beautifully engineered chorus that sounds surprisingly fresh and vibrant.

So does "The Game," this bright, mellifluous river of flowing, flooding pop sounds barely contained by artfully constructed guitar puzzles and expertly woven vocals, and despite its inane lyrics, the rising swells of piano, strummed guitar and Jon Davison's impassioned singing in "To Ascend" are particularly affecting. Jon Anderson's vocal doppelganger is in fine form here.

Too often, though, Yes seems uninspired, even goofy, on Heaven & Earth. And producer Roy Thomas Baker, so instrumental in helping Queen soar to great heights, doesn't appear willing to edit them. "Step Beyond" is a strange gum ball machine of bouncy synth blips that could be playful and child-like, but instead, it comes off as unfinished and lacking sophistication, as if Yes needed to fill time. And the lukewarm "Believe Again," the inactive opener, has extended periods of flatness, blank spaces of subdued, aimless noodling that's content to remain in the background, where it belongs.

While their Utopian ideals, warm nostalgic thoughts and dreams of a world where love extinguishes hate and selfishness are wonderful and high-minded, the New Age sentimentality of Yes occasionally goes too far, snuffing out the enigmatic whimsy that made the Yes of the early 1970s more likable. But when they shake off their torpor and find that spark of uninhibited creativity that's served them so well lo these many years, as they do on the ever-evolving, wildly original "Light of Ages" and "It Was All We Knew," Yes shows it's still capable of blending accessible songwriting and instrumental complexity in ways nobody – not King Crimson and certainly not Emerson, Lake & Palmer – else can, somehow managing to match the effusive color and alien imagery of Roger Dean's cover art with visionary, dynamic keyboards, crisp drumming, motoring bass and Howe's bottomless bag of guitar tricks.

Were they rushed in completing this record? It feels as if they were. Heaven isn't too far away for Yes here, but then again, neither is hell.
– Peter Lindblad

CD Review: Marillion – A Sunday Night Above the Rain

CD Review: Marillion – A Sunday Night Above the Rain
earMusic/Eagle Rock Entertainment
All Access Rating: A-

Marillion - A Sunday Night
Above the Rain 2014
An invasion of sorts took place on March 10, 2013, although it wasn't exactly an advancing horde of barbarians.

It was Marillion Weekend in Port Zelande, the Netherlands, and fans of the long-running progressive-rock collective from all over the world converged on Center Parcs to celebrate a group that's made thought-provoking and challenging, yet thoroughly accessible and soulful, music for the last 35 years.

2012's Sounds That Can't Be Made, Marillion's last record, was all of that and then some, managing to sound stylish and exotic, but also dissonant and angry in places. On this particular occasion, recorded for the exhilarating and emotionally resonant new two-disc live album A Sunday Night Above the Rain, Marillion threw every song from that album into the set for the first time, and simply stunning renditions of "Invisible Ink," "Montreal," "The Sky Above the Rain" and the title track are treated with a heightened sense of drama that is palpable, taking the band's flair for dramatic instrumentation – especially those wonderfully expressive keyboards, Steve Hogarth's heartfelt vocals and soaring guitars, courtesy of Steve Rothery – to a whole new level.

Perhaps somewhat dangerously, Marillion opens with "Gaza," a nearly 20-minute, and presciently topical considering the news of the day, epic full of passages of aching beauty that run smack into disorienting explosions of noise, growing and expanding into something even more grandiose and profound than the original. And yet the pristine, well-rounded sound of A Sunday Night Above the Rains does more to enhance and complement the sublime melodic complexities and diverse arrangements of fan favorites "Waiting to Happen," "Neverland," a synth-powered "Garden Party" and "This Strange Engine" than anything else, the crowd happily clapping and singing along in perfect unison. If Sunday is, indeed, supposed to be a day of worship, consider this concert recording a wondrous cathedral with services conducted whenever the listener chooses and sermons guaranteed to touch hearts, minds and souls. http://www.ear-music.net/en/label/ http://www.eagle-rock.com/
– Peter Lindblad