Monday, July 9, 2018

Album review: Thrillkiller—San Francisco Moto (2018)

Album cover

Surprise, everyone—I'm back! Did you miss me? Probably not. At any rate, here I am, back again after a long six months, writing reviews that no one will see. But that's OK, because I like writing them!

For the few of you that have been loyal and do read my reviews, then you know that one of my favorites to talk about is Thrillkiller, from Baltimore. Their music is such a breath of fresh air in a scene that oftentimes paints itself into a corner or pigeonholes itself once they latch on to a particular sound.

Finding a particular sound is something Thrillkiller has done, and done well. Taking sounds from ’80s pop and funk, mixing it in with the high energy of guitar-based classic rock, and putting 21st century swagger on top, Thrillkiller's multi-faceted sound harkens back to the days when MTV ruled the world; yet never sounding dated or gimmicky, which is no easy feat for any band specializing in throwback sounds.

It is a fine line between paying homage and becoming a novelty act, but Thrillkiller does this balancing act so effortlessly, it feels as if they jumped into the time-traveling DeLorean, brought back everything good from the ’80s, and gave it a revved-up modern gloss. The proof of this starts from the get-go with the opening track, “Theme of Rex Razor”, a short instrumental piece centered around those vibrant, futuristic-sounding synths, coupled with that bluesy guitar sound that is smoldering yet smooth at the same time.

The second song is one that readers may already be familiar with, as it was the first single from San Francisco Moto, released nearly a year ago, and a song I reviewed here: “The King of 1984”, a tune I cannot say enough about because it so perfectly encompasses all of the descriptions I have given this far of the band's music. It's a catchy pop-inspired earworm that can give some of the best ’80s jams a run for their money, while also a hard-rockin’, fist-pumping rock anthem that makes you want to bust out your lighters and raise them high into the air.

The second single and EP title track continues more on a similar theme with the funky bass, soulful guitars, and fiery vocals; but “San Francisco Moto” takes a different turn by adding some sultry sax and a danceable beat. If I had to describe it, to me it is as if the 1980s versions of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie got together to create the perfect rock song that you can groove to at the same time. It's got that same jazzy disco vibe, while giving us those poppy melodies that “burn rubber” in your brain long after the song has finished.

For all their funk/dance/pop influences, Thrillkiller is still a hard rock/heavy metal band at heart, and they make sure you don't forget it. “Last Horizon”, the EP's penultimate track, is Thrillkiller's heavier side at its finest, with that menacing interplay between Maxim's guitars and Rob's vocals, which always makes me feel like I am listening to the soundtrack to a spy movie or an action thriller.

The EP closer, “Wicked Rhythm”, is a blend of both sides of Thrillkiller: the rock side with the R&B side, and it is catchy as hell. It sounds like a cross between their songs “Passion Killer”, and “In Too Deep” (a song I proclaimed to love so much that I said I would marry it if I could!). Again, I am reminded of a movie scene: this time, it would be during one of those scenes where the main character is strutting down the street after taking down some bad guys, or trying to impress a girl. This hybrid of the band's different influences makes for a perfect way to close out this EP.

What I love about Thrillkiller is that their music is so much fun! It is music you can clap along with and stomp your feet to, and maybe even dance, if you are able. It's got sing-along verses and choruses, and hooks that stick in your head. Thrillkiller has taken everything memorable that we still love about the ’80s, scrapped everything that we now consider cheesy and over-the-top, and crafted their own unique take on those classic sounds with their own modern style. San Francisco Moto is only a 5-song EP, but it is chock-full of different sounds ranging from rock to synthpop to dance. The band has had somewhat of a revolving door of drummers throughout their short time together as a band, but the core foundation of Rob and Maxim, joined with Sebastian, is still solid and has not lost any footing throughout those changes. Quite the contrary, in fact: Thrillkiller keeps getting better and stronger as they move forward, paying tribute at the toll road of the past as they burn rubber on the fast track into a bright future.

Band photo

Visit the band's official website.

Special thanks to Rob Bradley.
All photos provided courtesy of Thrillkiller.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Album review: Master Sword—Shadow and Steel (2018)

Album: Shadow and Steel
Artist: Master Sword
Genre: Symphonic/fantasy metal
Label: Independent
Tracks: 10
Total time: 58:54

For all the talk these days about the state of modern music and where the music industry is going, I still think that it is a pretty exciting time to be a music fan. Now, more than ever, the listener has more power to custom-fit their tastes to their liking. No longer limited to radio or other mainstream avenues to be force-fed the music we should like, the playing field is wide open and there is literally a musical genre for everything.

In the world of metal, this tailor-made customization has taken hold as well; many bands specializing in a particular theme. There is Alestorm, who writes all about pirates; or Battlelore, whose songs all center around the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. There are bands that write about nothing but Vikings or zombies or comic book heroes—if you are into something, it’s very likely there is a metal band right now writing the soundtrack for that thing.

Video games are another niche market that have found a home within metal and one of these bands who are taking this new genre and raising the bar is Master Sword, a “heavy metal Zelda tribute band”. Their music pays homage to The Legend of Zelda video game series, one of the most beloved video game franchises of all time for over 30 years.

It is apparent when you hear them that Master Sword knows their material well and that they all share a deep love and respect for these games. As a Zelda fan myself, I can appreciate the way they use familiar musical parts from the games to craft a heavy tune and to further embellish on the rich narrative of the stories within these games. With their 4-song debut EP Epoch, Master Sword managed to open the doors to Hyrule (and all its parallel universes) and unfolded its vast landscape through music. Now, after over 2 years, the band’s long-awaited full-length album is here. Shadow and Steel promises to live up to the long wait and big expectations and they do not disappoint.

From the second the opening track “Behind the Mirror” hits, Master Sword takes you and pulls you into the Zelda universe. The music is charged with a feeling of anticipation, as Lily Hoy’s wildly high vocals invite you on an adventure. “Let me Show You the Night” is both eerie and seductive; a play on the darkly-themed Twilight Princess game.

What I really love about Master Sword’s music is the way they incorporate bits and pieces of other Zelda theme music into songs that are based on another theme, such as the song “Tower of Stone”, which is a reference to my favorite Zelda game of all time, Majora’s Mask, and the Stone Tower Temple, a dungeon that has become a fan-favorite to play, even among those who do not cite this as a favorite game. This near 7-minute track is filled with ambiance (I especially love the ’70s-style keyboards; very prog!), especially if you have played these games before and know the references. Even if you haven’t, the lyrics set up the visuals to where one could almost see the old, decaying tower that holds the ancient secrets of the dead.

Of course, Master Sword is not all about leaning on Zelda riffs. Much of their material is original stuff, with a few bits and pieces of Zelda themes peppered in or lyrics that are direct references to games, such as the songs “Kiss of the Flame” and “Beneath the Skin”, both of which have a good deal of original material, but also incorporate some well-known riffs from the games Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past, respectively.

However, they would not call themselves a “Zelda tribute band” for nothing: songs like “Sanctuary”, “Master of the Seas” and “Isle of the Sky Spirits” are all songs that heavily incorporate themes from various games, tugging at the heartstrings of every ’80s and ’90s kid who grew up with these games and still love them today. I know I felt a little bit of nostalgia when the song “Master of the Seas” ended with the memorable “Song of Time”, a theme any Zelda fan will know immediately.  

The music, like the games, is very epic in scope; such as “Beneath the Skin” and “Master if the Seas”, the two songs that clock in at just under 9 minutes. However, this grandeur is never more apparent than when Master Sword goes full-on Zelda and covers the iconic “Hyrule Field” theme. If you have ever played the game Ocarina of Time (deemed one of the greatest video games of all time and the most beloved of the Zelda franchise by many fans), this music is instantly familiar to you, as Master Sword takes that open-world sense of adventure and revs it up, making that feeling of wonder even more exciting and inspiring. In just a little over 4 minutes, Master Sword manages to capture all that same power and majesty of the 8 or 9-minute songs. You almost feel like jumping on the back of a horse and riding across the open lands! The final track, “My Destined One”, is also another Zelda theme done Master Sword-style; this one a take on the theme from the most current Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, a gentle, mellow acoustic ballad that wraps up the album nicely.

Overall, if you are a fan of the Zelda games, then Master Sword has a lot here for you to enjoy. You will recognize parts of various games and the references in their lyrics will be easy to understand. However, even if you are not a fan of the games or have not played them much, you can still enjoy Master Sword’s music, because they are a damn good band. The riffs are heavy, the musical style leans more towards progressive or symphonic metal and Lily’s voice is one that needs to be heard to be believed. Her voice is just insane (I mean this in a good way)! If you like heavy music with a bit of a “soundtrack” feel, then Master Sword is worth checking out. You may feel like you have stepped inside a video game when you are listening to Shadow and Steel, because it does make for great game-play music. If Master Sword existed in Hyrule, they might possibly even make Tingle do his special fairy dance. Koo-loo Limpah!

*Thanks to Henk van Nieuwenhoven at Female-Fronted Power.

*Special thanks to Matt Farkas for providing all photos.

*This review is dedicated to the memory of Zellie Blake: 1982-2010.*

“Whenever there is a meeting, a parting shall follow. But that parting needs not last forever. Whether a parting be forever or merely for a short while...that is up to you.”
—The Happy Mask Salesman, Majora's Mask

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas!

I know I promised not to share any more holiday songs, but today is Christmas, and there is a new Von Smith video that I had to share.

In commemoration of the holiday, Von gives us his take on Mariah Carey's “Miss You Most at Christmastime”. I personally think Von's version, but I am biased, and for another, I am not what would be considered the world's biggest Mariah Carey fan. But Von has an excellent knack for taking a song and making it his own, which he does here. The video itself is simple, with no frills: Von stands in an empty theater, and sings next to Logan Evan Thomas, playing piano. There is not much else you need when Von sings, because his voice commands attention and needs no ornamentation. Hopefully a Christmas album will come from this?

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Femme-Metal Friday: Tarja “Feliz Navidad”

Photo credit: Tim Tronckoe

I am back one more time with another Christmas video...I will share one more on Christmas Day, and then I promise to be done with the holiday music for the rest of the year!

The third and final Tarja video from her Christmas album From Spirits and Ghosts is her rendition of “Feliz Navidad”, known best by singer José Feliciano. Tarja also recorded a version featuring several other rock and metal singers to raise money for hurricane relief in Antigua, but I am going to write about the solo version featured on the album, because a lyric video was released for that song.

Unlike the other two videos, which showed the contrasting Light/Dark Tarja costumes, Tarja is dressed in a simple black dress in a room with a gold or beige background, with some lit candles and a comfortable-looking chair. The lyrics are in a lovely handwritten script, so that listeners can learn both the English and Spanish phrases. This is a stark contrast from the José Feliciano version: this song is known for being upbeat, cheery, and catchy. Tarja's version is subdued and dignified, as if to emphasize the solemnity of what Christmas means, and to convey that her wish to everyone for a Merry Christmas is not made lightly. It sounds almost like an entirely different song; any up-tempo elements have been completely stripped away and made into a somber, serious ballad that holds its own elegant charm and loveliness.

For more information on Tarja's Christmas album, visit the From Spirits and Ghosts website.

Season's greetings!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Hump Day Hot Ticket: Orion's Reign “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”

Band photo

Another Wednesday in December, another Christmas video from Orion's Reign...only this time, I have a new video for you!

Minniva is back on the vocals for this rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, with plenty of high-octane power metal vocals to spare. Everyone is rocking out to a festive backdrop, and just looks like they are having so much fun! There is imagery of Santa flying in his sleigh on a snowy night...honestly, I don't know how one can listen to Orion's Reign and not get into the holiday spirit; I suppose it is possible, but they probably don't like Christmas music anyway. As for those of us who love metal and love Christmas music, Orion's Reign has got you covered.

Season's greetings!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Femme-Metal Friday: Tarja “O Tannenbaum”

Photo credit: Tim Tronckoe

I'm back with another Christmas video from Tarja! Let's get started, shall we?

This video starts off with drawings of a busy city at Christmastime: people tramping through the streets in Santa hats, holiday lights illuminating shop windows, and a likeness of Tarja as she was dressed in the previous video  (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, which I reviewed last week). The camera pans out to show it is all inside the pages of a book that Tarja is reading.

This time, Tarja is wearing all black: her hair is raven-black, and the room is dark with black furniture. Tarja's face is painted white, and the small lights on the black Christmas tree give some brightness to the dark scenery. Again, the only spot of color can be found in the dark red on Tarja's lips.

As she sings the beloved Christmas carol in its native German, the drawings appear again, showing happy Nutcracker soldiers in the streets, while a lone shadowy figure approaches a cold and empty graveyard. Then the drawings dissolve to real images, returning to Tarja dressed in white. The camera alternates between her light and dark looks until the two are seen together, sitting across from one another. Now Tarja's dark side is seen in animation, approaching the graveyard as the holiday parade marches down the street. Dark Tarja looks as if she's about to start some trouble as a parade float drives by, and Light Tarja looks worried that something will happen. As the two sides draw nearer, the images flash between real and animated. Then we are left with the book closing on a drawing of the two Tarjas sitting across from each other.

For more information on Tarja or on her Christmas music, visit the official From Spirits and Ghosts website.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Hump Day Hot Ticket: Orion's Reign “Deck the Halls”

Band photo

I hope everyone has enjoyed my forays into Christmas music so far, because there's more to be had! It is the season for sharing, right?

Once again, Wednesdays focus on Orion's Reign, whose power metal-infused renditions of classic Christmas carols have become a favorite of mine at this time of year. Their videos are also of a fun and light-hearted nature, making these festive tunes even merrier.

Like last week's video, this one is a couple of years old, but Christmas music is timeless, so the shelf life of a music video shouldn't matter too much.

The video for “Deck the Halls”  begins with the band setting up their gear in the middle of a forest. Ladies in lovely dresses sit on the grass, trying on flower crowns. After working so hard, one of the bandmembers stops to relax at a nearby tree. As he appears to drift into dreams, the music starts. The ladies stop to look at the band, headbanging in the middle of the forest. At first they seem stunned, then curious, and before long, they are smiling. They follow the sound of the music, hiding behind trees as they watch in awe. As they tiptoe around the wooded areas, it is clear to see that they are fairies, and with one wave of their magic wands, the guitars turn into giant candy canes! The magic wand is brandished a few more times, and before long, the band is “decked” out in red and green, dressed as merry elves as the fairies dance around them and join in the fun.

Was it a bit of Christmas magic, or simply the dreams of a tired musician? You'll just have to watch for yourself.

For more information on Orion's Reign, visit their official website.