Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mini-review: Master Sword—Epoch (EP) (2015)

 Epoch album cover

Album: Epoch
Artist: Master Sword
Genre: Power metal
Tracks: 4
Total time: 20:02

Since I write primarily about music on this site, I don't get the chance very often to talk about my interests or hobbies outside of music, so few of you (if any) know little to nothing about other things that I like.

Like many metal fans, I am a huge fan of video games (however, as I do not own the newest and latest consoles, I cannot in good conscience call myself a gamer, as much as I would like to). One of my favorite video game series of all time is The Legend of Zelda series. Link has been my constant companion for nearly 30 years, ever since I was 8 or 9 years old. In many respects he is the perfect man: he never speaks, and he is always willing and ready to lend a helping hand to a lady! He also has a bad-boy streak: he loves to go into the homes of strangers and smash their pottery to take the money they have hidden in there. He goes into battle fearlessly and never hesitates to take on any favor asked of him, no matter how great or small.

Like any other man, he also has his faults: chickens are his Achilles' heel, and he has a penchant for sleeping in. Sometimes he also tends to hang out with the wrong crowd, like annoying little fairies that are yelling, “hey, listen!” in his ear every 5 seconds; or playing games with masked children who want to destroy the world. But he is kind to animals, is a true-blue friend who can ride a horse, sail a boat, and travel through time. His spirit reincarnates through several timelines and alternate universes. He's the only man who can wield the Master Sword. He is the destined hero of Hyrule. Link is a certified bad-ass.

So then, with all of these epic qualifications, it only stands to reason that The Legend of Zelda works perfectly with power metal. They both share many similar attributes. Much as I love the Zelda soundtracks, I also find that listening to power metal when playing the games works nicely as well. There are certain albums that just work with the ambiance of Zelda games, and one of my favorite things about playing a new Zelda game is finding that perfect album to complement it.

Apparently, I must not be the only one who does this, because one power metal band has taken it a step further. What Battlelore is to Tolkien's writing, Master Sword is to the Zelda games. This is a band dedicated to writing songs based on the Zelda series; either elaborating on the tales told in the games, or giving a metal version of a beloved theme, Master Sword is meeting the demand of combining the worlds of Zelda and of power metal, because they belong together and it is actually quite surprising that this hasn't already been done.

Calling upon their fellow musicians in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. area, Master Sword has put together a roster of talent to bring these songs to life and to bring Zelda fans that much closer to Hyrule.

 “The Mountain (One Last Fight)”: From the moment the opening notes begin, you are instantly transported to the landscape of Hyrule, if you are a Zelda fan. You can almost see it right before your eyes as you hear the music: you can see the rolling green hills of Hyrule Field, you sense the looming shadow of Death Mountain at your back, you can hear the lapping waters of Lake Hylia, and you can smell the scent of grass and hay from Lon-Lon Ranch. The chiming bells, the rising of the music makes you feel as if you are beginning an adventure. Then, a metal guitar riff of the iconic Zelda theme tells you exactly where you are. Chad Keyser (from the band Wild Storm) tells a tale of a young hero scaling a mountain to his destiny through his high-pitched screams. The song ebbs and flows, punctuated by fast, hard riffing, and then calming down to cadenced drumming and the chanting sing-song of The Goddess Choir.

 “The Forsaken Tribe”: The first song I heard from Master Sword, this heavy rendition of the Gerudo Valley theme tells the story of the all-female tribe of bad-ass pirates. Who better to sing their song than the Queen of Hell herself, A Sound of Thunder's own Nina Osegueda? There is only one male born to the Gerudo tribe every 100 years, and it just so happens he is the King of Evil, Link's arch-nemesis, Ganondorf. The Gerudo Valley theme is very Western in feel; it sounds like something you'd hear in a cowboy movie, and Master Sword kicks it up to the next level by adding in that dramatic power metal flair, coupled with Nina's insane vocals. The Gerudos are no-nonsense, take-charge kind of women, and somehow I can see Nina fitting in perfectly with them!

 “A Terrible Fate”: The familiar sounds that make up my favorite Zelda game, Majora's Mask, start off this track, and then the band rips it up seconds later, with a progressive-flavored jam for the ages. You can almost feel the sense of urgency as the clock ticks down in Termina and the band plays a variation of the boss battle music. The voice of Aries vocalist Rob Bradley comes in to tell us about the impending doom if you haven't noticed the giant moon descending to earth! You've only got 3 days to save the world, and you need to find as many masks as possible to make sure the world of Termina doesn't meet their impending doom. No pressure! In case you haven't read my previous reviews about Aries, then perhaps I should tell you that Rob's giant voice is perfect to represent the story of the 4 giants trying to hold back the moon from crashing into humanity.

“Legends”: The final track is much calmer and more mellow than the others; the Goddess Choir female voices are very Celtic-sounding, and the music is sparse and simple. Slow percussion, lovely guitars, and the strong female vocals. This song tells the tale of how Hyrule was submerged underwater so as to keep Ganondorf from rising and ruling again. Just when you think the song is going to end on a slow note, the band comes back in to give a rousing interpretation of the classic Legend of Zelda theme, complete with guitars and keyboards going back and forth in another prog-style rock-out; ending much the same way the EP began.

Overall opinion: If you are a Legend of Zelda fan, you owe it to yourself to check out Master Sword, even if you do not consider yourself a fan of rock or metal music. Zelda fans around the world have paid tribute to the works of Koji Kondo by putting their own spin on the music, and this is far more than just a rock version of the Zelda theme, or game music done with guitars. Lyrics are written that tell the listener a story, so that even for those who are not fans of the game or who are not familiar with the story can still follow along. You can tell by listening to this that these guys are fans of the games, obviously; but you can also tell that these are fans that know the source material and not only pay proper homage to it, but embellish it further with their own interpretation (much like the many “fan theory” videos that run rampant on the internet, which I admit I love to watch). What I love about power/progressive/symphonic metal more than any other genres, is the ability the music has to unfurl visions through the music. When you listen to each song, you can see the world of Hyrule (or Termina, in the case of “A Terrible Fate”) opening up before your eyes. You almost want to grab your ocarina and jam along! Maybe this is just me, as I am a fan of the games and through the various riffs here and there that are reminiscent of game music, I can easily envision the places that the music is referring to; but I would like to think that even the average listener can envision the fantasy world that Master Sword is painting with their music. If you listen to “The Forsaken Tribe” and honestly cannot envision a Gerudo warrior woman brandishing her double scimitars, or if you cannot feel the suffocating dread of uncertainty when you listen to “A Terrible Fate”, then either you have never played the Zelda games, or if you have, maybe you need to play them again because you haven't been paying attention! For only being 4 songs, this EP is a solid piece of work and I would love to hear a full-length album from Master Sword one of these days. There is 3 decades' worth of material for them to work with, so it's certainly a possibility!


Special thanks to Nina Osegueda & Rob Bradley 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Top 10: Bands With Only One Album

So much music, so little time!

Music is a vast oasis, and especially nowadays, there are so many different choices open to us as listeners. Whether it's classics from the past or the latest hit of the summer, we all have those songs and albums that define our musical character and are regular staples on our personal playlists.

While we all have our favorite bands and artists, and the “one-hit wonders” whose tunes we all remember but whose names we have forgotten: what about that gray area of the bands and artists who only ever released one album, but it was so good that we still consider it a favorite? Those bands who seemed like they had a bright future ahead of them with this one album, but then disappeared entirely? Those singular albums that from album opener to closing track, was nothing short of perfect?

I got to thinking about this when I was listening to an album a few days ago that falls into this category for me (and will be on this list): what are some of my personal favorite “singular albums” (for lack of a better term)? Which of these have stood the test of time and that I would deem just as good as any effort from any of my favorite artists? Maybe some of these you have never heard of, and hopefully by reading this you might feel inclined to listen to them (if you can find them!). Likewise, maybe there are some out there I have never heard of that some of you would like to share with me in the comments section.

The “rules” are pretty simple: I thought for a moment of including bands who may have released two albums as part of this list, but I think for now I will just stick to the artists that packed a lifetime of great music into one album. The only exception I have made in one or two instances are bands who released one full-length and maybe one EP or one single besides; but still technically only have one full-length studio album. There were also a few that I wanted to put on the list that I thought were the only albums of that band, but have since released material that I either have not heard yet or could not find when I tried to look online for them. So maybe I will make a separate entry later for these releases; but for now I'll just stick to the bands I know for certain made only one album in their brief existence.

Usually I am reluctant to make a “top 10” list of anything, but this is a unique subject and to try and think of more than 10 might be a little too far-reaching. To think of less than 10 would be too easy! So I think 10 is “just right”, and gives me incentive to give some real thought to those hidden gems I have enjoyed over the years.

I am also hesitant to name any releases that have made the standard lists that you can find with any Google search about this topic. (In other words, you aren't going to see yet another list including the Sex Pistols or Derek & the Dominoes; nothing against those bands, but I'm trying to do something different here.) At any rate, here's another blog entry dedicated to some of the unusual music I listen to!

Honorable mentions

Victor (S/T) (1995) 

The one and only solo effort from Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, Victor is a departure from the progressive rock sound of Rush, but Lifeson's unique guitar style is prominent from the get-go.

Enlisting the help of talented Canadian vocalists such as Dalbello and Edwin (former vocalist of I Mother Earth), the Victor project runs the gamut from dark and eerie (such as on the eponymous title track), to quirky and campy on the song “Shut up Shuttin' Up”, which is nothing more than Lifeson's wife and her girl friend gabbing mindlessly over Lerxst's smokin' guitar riffs (punctuated by the gals at the end of every verse that he should just “shut up and play the guitar!”). If anything, this album is an interesting peek into Lerxst's mad genius; an open invitation into all that makes up the mind of the man who made the greatest Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acceptance speech of all time!

Geddy Lee: My Favorite Headache (2000)

Another Rush bandmember solo project, the triply-talented bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Geddy Lee ventures into solo territory with his only album, My Favorite Headache. Released back when Rush was on indefinite hiatus due to personal tragedies befalling drummer Neil Peart, many fans wondered at the time if this would be the closest we'd ever get to another Rush album again.

Just as it was with the Victor album for Alex Lifeson, Geddy's solo effort was something quite different from Rush, yet also distinctly familiar. Let's face it, no one has a voice like Ged's, so anytime he sings anything, it's just going to instantly be associated with Rush no matter what it is. But when you're also known as one-third of the most technically proficient power trio in the world, the drummers in your backing band can't be slouchers either: Geddy made sure of this by recruiting Seattle's finest, Matt Cameron; as well as Our Lady Peace drummer Jeremy Taggart.

Sonically, My Favorite Headache is probably more pop-rock or adult contemporary than progressive or hard-rock, but it's got Geddy's stamp all over it: the ever-familiar goofy sense of humor that Rush fans know so well is present on tracks like “Home on the Strange”; Geddy's ability to pen great rock melodies can be found on songs such as the title track, “Runaway Train”, and “Working at Perfekt”. Geddy's more sensitive side can be found with songs such as “The Angels' Share”, “Slipping”, and the deeply-personal ode to his Holocaust-survivor parents, the rousing album closer “Grace to Grace”. Word has it that this album is difficult to find these days, so if you come across it and you consider yourself a Rush fan, do yourself a favor and pick it up.

...And now, on to the actual list!

Evilion: Vanity (2006)

Finland is known for its symphonic metal scene, so it's no surprise that there is an abundance of female-fronted symphonic metal bands from the region. However, Finland's Evilion did something a little different for their time, and might have even been trailblazers of the genre in their own way. Rather than incorporate the standard angelic female voice coupled with the growling male voice (the typical “beauty and the beast” formula that has become a staple in symphonic metal), Evilion had two female singers: one a sweet, operatic voice; the other, a strong rock voice. Nowadays it seems that the genre has evolved to where more bands are doing something similar to this, or finding vocalists who can pull off both types of vocal styles.

From the atmospheric opening track “My Silver” to the cinematic “Hide the Stars” to the doomy “Shadow”, all the way to the haunting album closer, “Mirage”; Vanity possessed all the components of a promising symphonic metal band on the rise. Something else that made them stand-outs at the time (which is also something that many bands seem to do a lot of nowadays): when Vanity was released, Evilion made the entire album available free for download on their site so as to reach as many new listeners as possible. Back when Evilion released this album, not a lot of bands were really doing these sorts of things, so while Evilion's time in the music world was short-lived, they seemed to have made a mark on the scene and left behind a musical blueprint for similar bands to follow.

Meanstreak: Roadkill (1988)

Usually when the name Meanstreak is mentioned, it is in connection to Dream Theater; as three of the bandmembers of the all-female thrash-metal band are married to current or former members of the prog-metal giants. I admit, this affiliation is also where I first heard of the band! (That being said, I also think it's pretty cool that among the two factions, the women are in the thrash-metal band and the males are playing the melodic metal; where one might think the two would be reversed!)

However, if that's all you know Meanstreak for, then you are missing out on a metal masterpiece that is deemed one of the best thrash records of the ’80s by many fans of the genre; which is saying a lot, considering that the year 1988 alone brought us some groundbreaking thrash albums such as Metallica's ...And Justice for All and Slayer's South of Heaven, just to name a couple.

Even though this album only clocks in at a little more than 32 minutes, it packs a mighty punch with the opening title track, the Middle Eastern-inspired “Snake Pit”, headbang-inducing tracks such as “It Seems to Me” and the album's final song (which takes up one-fifth of the record's running time, reaching nearly 7 minutes!), “The Congregation”. This obscure classic is sure to please any thrash-metal purist, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of females in metal needs to add this prize to their collection.

Temple of the Dog (S/T) (1991)

During the height of grunge in the early ’90s, some of the Seattle scene's heaviest hitters joined together to form a supergroup tribute to deceased Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood, and Temple of the Dog was born.

Their one and only collaboration remains one of the best albums from the era and many Chris Cornell fans hold this in as high regard as any of his work with Soundgarden. The album's two singles, “Hunger Strike” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” can still be heard on classic rock radio to this day, but this album has some other amazing tunes—the hard-rockin' “Pushin' Forward Back”, the bluesy album closer “All Night Thing”, or my personal favorite from the album (and one of my favorite songs that Chris Cornell sings, hands-down), “Call me a Dog”.

Most anyone who remembers the rock scene in the early ’90s probably remembers Temple of the Dog's self-titled release (if they didn't own it themselves), so this entry probably isn't as little-known as some of the others on this list. But on the other hand, since this album is nearly 25 years old, perhaps some of you readers out there who haven't thought of it in a while might want to dust off your copy sitting on the shelf and give it another listen; or maybe some of you younger readers who have only heard of the grunge era in passing might not necessarily know of this album in your search for Nirvana and Pearl Jam tunes to add to your classic ’90s playlists.

While Temple of the Dog was only a one-time project, this album stands as much as any other landmark release of the time as an embodiment of the grunge movement's refreshing innovation and exciting spirit.

Sethian: Into the Silence (2003)

Another metal band from Finland, this was a sort of “supergroup” comprised of Tapio Wilska (former singer of Finntroll), ex-Wizzard guitarist Juuso Jalasmäki, and Nightwish bandmembers Tuomas Holopainen and Jukka Nevalainen. The farthest thing from symphonic metal, Into the Silence is more hard rock-influenced with some gothic and progressive overtones; very reminiscent of Queensrÿche, whom the band cites as a major influence.

Nicknamed “the most wicked voice in metal”, Wilska shows off his vocal chops outside of his ability to growl and grunt with the best of 'em: his singing voice is no less powerful, as proven on songs such as “Blood Calling” and “Dead Reckoning”; but also invitingly hypnotic on tracks like “Love Under Will”, “Dream Domain”, or my favorite track from the album, “Magdalene”. It's really a shame nothing more came of this band; but I suppose when two of your bandmembers are part of the most world-famous band in Finland, it's a little hard to get together and jam on new songs!

Salty Dog: Every Dog Has its Day (1990)

L.A. sleaze-rock at its most decadent, Salty Dog embodied the Sunset Strip scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Not to be confused with the perfectly-coiffed glam-metal pretty boys that are often associated with the Hollywood metal scene, Salty Dog is gritty, down-and-dirty, and just good old-fashioned rock-and-roll music.

For being their only album, Every Dog Has its Day is 13 songs chock-full of naughty, trashy hard-rock goodness. The album's opening track and only radio/video single, “Come Along”, was one of the last songs ever played on KNAC before they went off the air, so Salty Dog will always be tied to those memories of my days as a young metalhead and all the great music I was lucky enough to have discovered during that time.

Tunes like “Cat's Got Nine”, “Ring my Bell”, and “Heave Hard (She Comes Easy)” are cheeky, feel-good rock songs that make you want crank the volume up and get into a party mood. They can also get bluesy and soulful with tracks like “Lonesome Fool”, or pen a ballad worthy of lighter-waving such as “Sacrifice Me”. Jimmi Bleacher has got some fuckin' pipes on him, as demonstrated on a song like “Come Along” (of which the last vocal line is among some of my favorite high-pitched metal screams); guitarist Scott Lane gets down on the banjo on a couple of the tracks while bassist Michael Hannon holds down the groove; even drummer Khurt Maier gets his moment in the sun on the short instrumental track “Sim Sala Bim”. Pete Reeven is an unsung guitar hero, as shown on tracks like “Where the Sun Don't Shine” or the band's cover of Howlin' Wolf's “Spoonful”. Then the band absolutely tears it up on the all-out sleaze-rock jam that is the album's final track, “Nothin' But a Dream”. 

It's too bad we never heard more from these guys; as the scene changed drastically around the time their big break finally came, and they were one of the many promising young bands that were an unfortunate casualty in the whirlwind of grunge. If given a little more time, they might have really made some waves and given their big-name contemporaries a serious run for their money.

Phoenix Reign: Destination Unknown (2007)

Not only is this one of my favorite singular albums, but this is one of my favorite albums in general.

Hailing from New York, Phoenix Reign is a fantastic power-metal band: their high-spirited anthemic music combined with ambitious lyrics rooted in Greek history, this female-fronted quintet charged out of the gates with this superb masterwork containing memorable tunes like “Transcendent”, “Masquerade Angel”, “Another Night Alone”, and the epic closing track “Constantinople 1453 (On the Eve of the Fall)”. With such a strong start, it seemed as though this band was poised to be one of the break-out stars in the rapidly-growing symphonic/power-metal scene in the U.S.; but sadly, Phoenix Reign faded away as quickly as they came. However, this album stands as a testament to what power metal is capable of at its best.

Too often power metal has been accused of staying in the same place creatively and never venturing outside of the same tried-and-true methods that has gained its loyal following in the first place. But an album like Destination Unknown shows what can happen when those same creative boundaries are pushed beyond their limits. If you consider yourself a fan of the genre, or of good female-fronted metal, you owe it to yourself to give this album a listen.

Demolition Pit: 13 Lessons in Aggression (1996)

Declared as “Southern California's answer to Pantera”, Orange County's Demolition Pit was another one of those local bands that never quite experienced the success they might have had under different circumstances.

I discovered the band's music through a chance meeting with the band's bass player, Raul, while at the beach one day. I instantly became a fan, and it was really cool to watch them rise through the club scene, to getting airplay on KNAC in those final months before its demise, to the pinnacle of watching them open for the legendary Motörhead at Lemmy's 50th birthday party gig; where Metallica made a surprise guest appearance, and Will (the band's drummer) got to play on Lars Ulrich's kit! (This was also my very first date with my boyfriend; who I am still with to this day. Just goes to show that metal is the secret to a long-term relationship!)

Sadly, that was probably the beginning of the end for Demolition Pit, as inner band turmoils caused lineup changes and the overall music scene kept shifting further from metal. Unfortunately, I learned several years ago that Raul had passed away, and at the time Demo Pit was still trying to make a go of things as a 5-piece, and changed their sound from more of a thrash vibe to a hard-rock or alternative sound; but they never reached the brass ring that seemed just within their grasp in the mid-’90s.

Nonetheless, 13 Lessons in Aggression still remains a kick-ass album from one of my all-time favorite local bands, and I still listen to it to this day. Songs like “Wrong Doings”, “Fight”, and “Control” are still perfect go-to songs when you need a little music to let off steam in a pissed-off mood.

Spys 4 Darwin: Microfish (2001)

Take one part Sponge, two parts Alice in Chains, and one part Queensrÿche, and you've got Spys 4 Darwin, one of the first supergroups of the 2000s and overlooked entirely when referencing the wave of supergroups to have formed over the decade. 

A 6-song EP that is filled with just the kind of grunge-laced alternative rock that you would expect from a lineup featuring 3 prominent Seattle musicians; even if one of them is known more for progressive metal than for alternative music. Sponge vocalist Vin Drombowski's gravelly vocals shine on the opening track, “Submission in Love”, and the Alice in Chains rhythm section of Mike Inez and Sean Kinney rock it out from start to finish. An album that is so rooted in grunge influences, however, is brought a little bit of progressive melody when you add former Queensrÿche guitarist Chris DeGarmo to the fold. His intricate guitar sound is apparent on the entire EP, but most espeically on songs like “Dashboard Jesus”, “Insomnia Station”, and “Cold Dead Hands”. 

This is another short-lived supergroup that showed so much potential and possibility, but ultimately were pulled away by their original bands or other projects, and that is a crying shame. Since Alice in Chains has since regrouped over the years, it doesn't look like a possible Spys 4 Darwin reunion is in the cards either. But Microfish is a stand-alone solid piece of work and if you were/are a fan of the grunge movement or of ’90s alternative rock, then add this to your music library if you are lucky enough to find it!

For my Pain...: Fallen (2003)

Yet another supergroup on the list, and another one from Finland besides; For my Pain's Fallen is a gothic-rock masterpiece that to this day, I find myself still listening to quite often and would cite as one of my top-favorite albums of all time (in case you haven't figured it out, this was the album I was listening to when I got the idea to make this list).

Featuring an all-star lineup from all across the Finnish metal scene, For my Pain is another supergroup that Tuomas Holopainen was involved with during 2003 when Nightwish was on a brief hiatus while then-vocalist Tarja was finishing her studies in Germany. Ex-members of Charon, Reflexion, and Eternal Tears of Sorrow also make up the band's lineup. 

Many fans of the Finnish metal scene hold this album in high regard; with dark, beautiful melodies on songs like “Dancer in the Dark”, “Sea of Emotions”, and “Bed of Dead Leaves”, it's easy to understand why. Both the opening track, “My Wound is Deeper Than Yours”, and the deliciously wicked “Dear Carniwhore” are quintessential gothic rock, fused with just enough high-energy hard rock that makes you instantly want to turn it up loud and get to rockin’. Whether it's Juha's seductive vocals, Tuomas' trademark keyboard sound, or the impassioned twin-guitar work of Olli-Pekka Törrö and Lauri Tuohimaa; For my Pain is a must for fans of Finnish rock bands like HIM or The 69 Eyes.

The band released a follow-up single in 2004, “Killing Romance”; but no more has been heard from them since, and both Fallen and the “Killing Romance” single are hard-to-find rarities these days. Whenever asked about a possible For my Pain reunion, Tuomas has joked that everyone is so involved with their own bands and projects that they will probably all be in the retirement home before they find the time to make another album together!

Vendetta (S/T) (1993)

Originally based in Texas, Vendetta was one of the many bands who came to Southern California in the late ’80s/early ’90s, trying to make a go of the still-thriving Sunset Strip scene. Just like any other band in the stage of trying to get their name out there, they still had to work day jobs to support themselves while waiting for their lucky break; and this is where I first met Vendetta's vocalist Ron James, who was working at the same place as a close family friend.

It was the summer of 1992, right before I turned 14, and was definitely at that point in my life where music was starting to become a huge part of my identity. Ron shared with me his band's demo tapes, which I loved and played nonstop that summer. I guess you could say that Vendetta was my very first concert ever, but I never looked at it that way because Ron was a friend, so we were supporting a friend by coming out to watch his band. But I have to admit, as a young teenage girl, I thought Ron was gorgeous; he was probably my first real real “rock-star crush”, and his onstage performance left a lasting impression on me. Then again, watching him strut on stage and flaunt his masculine attributes during a song called “Sex” is certainly going to have some kind of impact! 

Still, I am not a shallow person and at the end of the day, it is all about the music. Listening to this many years later, there is much of it that could be considered derivative of the sound during the tail-end of that era, such as the power ballad “Julia Smile” (which, if it had been given the right exposure, probably would have been a huge MTV hit), still one of the most beautiful rock ballads I've ever heard. Songs like “Can't Get There From Here”, “Welcome to the Real World”, and “Smile” (featuring some of my favorite lyrics: “smile, never show the real, it's only for a while”) showcase the band's shining talent and ability to craft great rock songs filled with melody and good hooks. But it's the stand-out closing track “The Night” that is the ultimate proof that they had more going for them and might have possibly hit their stride with another album or two. I still have the 3-song demo tape that Ron gave me over 20 years ago, and I remember how happy I felt for them when I saw the ad in Metal Edge magazine for this album. 

Here we have yet another band that got swallowed up in the tidal wave of grunge, but at least they did manage to release this one album before quietly fading into the annals of time. Sadly, a few years ago, when looking online to see if I could find any copies of the super-rare album available, I learned that Ron James had died tragically in a plane crash back in 2009. Unfortunately, I can find no further information about this, so if anyone has any more info besides the one website that has it mentioned in a Google search, I'd appreciate it. Needless to say, I'm very saddened to hear about this, even if it did happen over 6 years ago. I do not know Ron's actual age at the time of his passing, but I think it's safe to say that he was not exactly an old man when he left this world, which is a tragedy unto itself. I don't know why learning about this pierces my heart the way it has, but it does. 

Over the years, Vendetta's only album has been a constant favorite that I have turned to many times; it was one of the first albums I transferred to my MP3 player when I got one, because it's that much a part of my life. You can still find me listening to it on a fairly regular basis; depending on my mood, it can be anywhere from a couple times a year to several times a week. Classic music is timeless and this album gets my top pick because over 20 years later, it still sounds as new and exciting to me as those summer days in 1992 when I discovered my love of sharing the gift of music with others, when I went all over my neighborhood plastering flyers for Vendetta shows all over the place.

Ron gave me a rare gift when he shared his music with me; in an indirect way, he helped turn my path to the course it is on now, and it is because of him that I discovered my passion for sharing music with others. I am only sorry that I will never get the chance to tell him this. But for all of you reading this, maybe some of you will be curiously interested in hearing this band, and for every one of you who will seek out this long-buried treasure, Ron's gift of music will live on.


The point of making this list was not only to share some rare and obscure albums that you may not have heard of, but also to show what a lasting power music has whether a band or artist has a long-time career or if they were just a blip on the screen. Much of what gives music that sort of power is from the emotional connections people form with songs or albums. Just a few notes of a long-forgotten song can instantly transport you back to a happier time in your life, or comfort you in difficult times. 

So, when compiling this list and choosing the top entry, it was a no-brainer that I would pick an album that has not only held up over the years, but is also tied in to personal memories; because good music should both stand the test of time and have the ability to connect with the listener. In fact, all of these albums have some sort of personal connection to some place in time in my life; some more than others, but all of them represent some chapter either in my evolution as a music listener, or in my own life.

This is why I wanted to make such a list, because I think it is a pretty cool idea that there are bands and artists out there who managed to create the soundtrack of a lifetime all in just one release. Maybe some of them expected to go on further and do greater things; or maybe some of them felt that they said all they needed to say in just one go-around. Whatever their intention, music lives forever so long as there is one person to listen to it. So it is with that hope that those of you who took the time to read this will also feel inclined to seek out these albums and listen with an open mind and an honest heart.

How about all of you? What are some of your favorite “singular albums”? Share them with me in the comments section, because I'm sure there are some I have forgotten, and I always like to discover new music!

Until next time...


Special thanks to the good folks at the Counterparts Forum for engaging in discussion on this very topic and being the deciding factor on adding the two honorable mentions to the list.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Album review: Queensrÿche—Condition Hüman (2015)

Condition Hüman album cover

Album: Condition Hüman
Artist:  Queensrÿche
Label: Century Media
Genre: Progressive metal
Tracks: 12
Total time: 53:27

The smoke has cleared, the furor has died down, and at long last, the battle for custody of the Queensrÿche legacy had a victor. Now that the band's less-than-amicable split with their former singer was officially in the past and both parties were moving on, it was time to get back to what really mattered: the music.

With the 2013 release of their eponymous album, Queensrÿche had proved that they could make it on their own without their iconic former frontman. The album was a true return to form, and showed promise of greater things to come. Clocking in at 35 minutes, the album was a success, but fans longed for more. They could hear in just that short amount of time everything they had been missing for the last decade and a half, and knew that once the band was free to create without the burden of past baggage weighing them down, that the potential of the first album with Todd LaTorre would be realized in even greater capacity the next time around.

Suffice it to say, the next album had a lot to live up to before it was even made. If people were watching the band critically before, they were looking even closer at them now. For the doubters, it was easy to chalk up the first album as being successful because the band and fans alike were still in a “honeymoon phase” with LaTorre; everything was still new and exciting, and the allure had not quite worn off yet. They had managed to make a hell of a great album and to reignite the spark, but the true test would be if they could maintain the fire they had lit. Too often, many bands fell prey to the dreaded “sophomore jinx”, and for a band like Queensrÿche, there was much more at stake because this was not the second album of their career that could be redeemed in another album or two: there was no do-over on a second chance this far into a band's lifespan. They had been given the rare opportunity to rewrite their own history. Now was the make-or-break moment as to whether their future was secured as well.

Even as far back as the 2013 album's release, the band declared that they were already working on songs for a follow-up, and hinting that the music would be in a much more progressive vein than on the previous record. If this hadn't already excited the legions of fans who were waiting on the edge of their seats to hear what Queensrÿche would do next, this sent them into an absolute frenzy. The 2013 self-titled album was proof that the band could get back to their metal roots and rock again; now the fans wanted them to expand upon that and return to the progressive style that made them stand out from all their other contemporaries in the ’80s metal scene.

It may sound like Queensrÿche fans are quite the demanding bunch; but quite simply, we have high standards because we know that the band can live up to them. The band knows this too, and are ready and willing to meet those demands because they are the type of band who wants to top themselves and do better than they did the last time. This is what fans love about them: the band listens to their audience and are completely open to constructive criticism; they aren't afraid to hear honest opinions, because they are perfectionists and therefore have probably already recognized where there is room for improvement themselves! (Not only this, but just observing from the outside as someone who frequents their Facebook page regularly, they listen to negative feedback just as much as positive reinforcement; I daresay I have a much shorter fuse when it comes to a lot of these trolls, but Queensrÿche takes it all in good stride and respectfully acknowledges their viewpoints as much as anyone else who cares to express their thoughts.)

Another note-worthy attribute that Queensrÿche fans have that seems to be lacking in many fanbases in this day and age of instant gratification and online interaction between bands and fans, is that even when certain elements come into play that they are not sure of or don't entirely agree with, many fans remain broad-minded and are not quick to criticize. The perfect example of this is when it was announced that the band would not be working with Jimbo Barton as producer again for the album-in-progress. That probably sent shockwaves throughout the Rÿchean fandom, but overall, there was little public outrage or complaints. Even when it was revealed that the album's producer was Chris “Zeuss” Harris—known more for producing artists such as Rob Zombie and bands such as Soulfly, Chimaira, and Demon Hunter—Rÿche fans remained optimistic; presenting a tolerant attitude and keeping faith that the band they loved knew what they were doing and weren't going to let them down.

Even when the band launched a PledgeMusic campaign (similar to Kickstarter and other crowdfunding projects)—something that many older music fans did not understand or see the point of, or normally saw as a shameless money grab—fans still kept an open mind and as pre-orders on the PledgeMusic site racked up, slowly but surely began to rethink their stance on these issues; because they wanted the new Queensrÿche album that much. Even the band's fans were going back to the way things used to be; their audience was once again encouraged to think outside the box and engage in open discussion about topics that people felt strongly about...even if it was something as uncontroversial as crowdfunding campaigns.

As the weeks and months went on, the process that became Condition Hüman really was like a community effort. The fans, ever-supportive, wanted to do their part to bring this album to life; and contributed in whatever way they could so that the band could carry on and let the artistic process happen with as few bumps in the road as could be managed. It only made sense: Queensrÿche were not the only ones who went through the ups and downs of the last few years; the fans had gone through it with them and wanted the best album possible not only for their own sake, but for the band's too. The fans were rooting them on to go out there, kick ass, and silence the skeptics once and for all. They wanted the album that they knew had been brewing within Queensrÿche for years, and had been waiting just as long to hear.

Although it has only been little more than 2 years since the last album's release, the wait seemed like an eternity. For those of you reading this who are not Queensrÿche fans or do not know the band's history very must understand that even though on a calendar, it was only 2 years and that is really not a long time at all; for fans, it was a much longer wait than that. For years we had endured sub-par albums and getting only a fraction of the band's full capability, due to former bandmembers keeping the musical direction locked in the same place for a very long time. So it was not just 2 years that we had been waiting; we had really been waiting for more like 2 decades! Perhaps the impatience that we fans exhibited might be somewhat forgiven when the context of our restlessness is better understood when you look at it in this way!

Sure enough, when the first single, “Arrow of Time”, was released, it was everything the fans had expected, and then some. Further developing upon the hard-rockin' sensibility of the previous effort, “Arrow of Time” moved it up another notch and clearly showed the band's rapid progression in just those 2 short years.

Everything about Condition Hüman presented the standard hallmarks of classic Queensrÿche: from the music video for the second single, “Guardian” to the album artwork featuring a dark attic room where a little girl wipes the dust away from the window to leave the shape of a tri-ryche looking out on a Seattle skyline; Condition Hüman was shaping up to be exactly what everyone had hoped for and expected. Now it seemed that October 2nd would never arrive; as the days drew closer, the wait felt even longer. The shining reviews that were beginning to crop up across the internet only seemed like merciless teasing to the fans; we wanted to hear how great it was too!

If you were a PledgeMusic backer, your wait was shortened by just a few hours if you lived on the West Coast: at 9 p.m. on October 1st, your digital download available with your pre-order was waiting in your inbox! Within moments, the wait was over and I was able to hear Condition Hüman for myself.

“Arrow of Time”: The first single, it's a perfect jumpstart to the album; the twin guitars of Michael “Whip” Wilton and Parker Lundgren are perfect symbiotic assault from the get-go: that counterbalanced style of metal aggression and progressive harmony that is so unmistakably Queensrÿche. From start to finish it's a high-energy song that gets you up off your feet, ready to pound your fists and bang your head. It's also a perfect introductory song to the album because there is much about it that is reminiscent of the first album, yet clearly a step up from its predecessor.

“Guardian”: If the previous song was a fitting introduction to Condition Hüman, then this track continues to set the tempo by bringing in all the balls-out heaviness that made the previous album so good; but again, this is another track that takes all the key elements of the last album and injects them with even more power. The lyrics are even a testament to the band's new direction; playing on one of their most well-known songs, they flip the script by proclaiming what they are all about now: “evolution calling!” Todd lets loose vocally and belts out some wicked high notes that are just crazy! Think of all the heaviest songs from the 2013 album, take all the best parts of each one, and then imagine what a song featuring all those components would be like, and you've got “Guardian”.

“Hellfire”: Starting off with the melodic acoustic guitars that is just as much a Queensrÿche trademark as their heavy riffs, this song sounds as though parts of it were taken from Whip's “Hollow” demo. This is the Queensrÿche we remember that could strike a balance between harmony and heaviness without turning it into a sappy ballad.

“Toxic Remedy”: I see this one being a fan-favorite across the board. This is another song that is not so much on the heaviness in a fast way, but more on the depth of the song's message. There is this slow heaviness to it that channels an aggression that is just as intense as any of their faster songs. Todd sounds sinister in some parts, commanding in others; setting the tone of the lyrics with his vocal delivery. It's got a Mindcrime vibe to it, but also very much a Rage for Order or Promised Land feel to it as well.

“Selfish Lives”: Personally, this is my pick for the next single. It's got all the ingredients for a perfect Rÿche song: passionate vocals from Todd, melodic dual guitars that pack a heavy punch, and lyrics that address something more than the superficial and mundane. This is another song that I feel is a homage to previous albums, but is also very modern.

“Eye9”: OK, so I fuckin' love this song! Eddie's bass is the centerpiece here, and if I had to compare it to an older Queensrÿche song, I would say to consider this the “Disconnected” or “sp00L” of Condition Hüman, in that it's different from your typical Rÿche tune, but it fits so perfectly for them and makes total sense in the grand scheme of things. It's got that dark, creepy vibe; but it's also so fierce!

“Bulletproof”: Queensrÿche officially reclaims their throne as the forefathers of symphonic metal on this song, plain and simple. It's dramatic, it's melodic, it's's all those things I love about Queensrÿche. Hands-down, this is my favorite track on Condition Hüman. I think I've even fallen a little in love with it, like I did with “A World Without” from the last album. I can't help it; I have accepted that symphonic metal is the music that mirrors my soul, and that is what Queensrÿche does best. They have been making music that mirrors my soul for the last 25 years, ever since I was 11 years old; and this is another song that goes on the playlist to the soundtrack of my life.

“Hourglass”: Where the last song reconnects us with the band's symphonic tendencies, this one is more along the line of their progressive roots: the harmony and melody weaving in-between powerful riffs and energetic grooves. It's also a return to their own “progressive-pop” sensibility, as the chorus is very catchy and hooky, sticking easily in your head and pleasantly remaining there for a long time afterwards.

“Just Us”: Queensrÿche isn't just all about heavy tunes; they are also well-known for composing beautiful slower songs, like this one. Those gorgeous acoustic guitars coupled with Todd's voice makes for a lovely ballad that rivals “Silent Lucidity” or “Some People Fly” or any other similarly-crafted songs. In a strange way, even though this is a more mellow song, some of the parts remind me of the b-side “Last Time in Paris” from the Empire album. Simply dazzling.

“All There Was”: This is probably the heaviest track on the album (maybe rivaling “Guardian” for the title, anyway!); I see a lot of the old-school Rÿchers fond of The Warning and Operation: Mindcrime gravitating to this one. S-Rock's drums are absolutely monstrous on this track, and the guitars are fast and frenetic.

“The Aftermath”: A small one-minute piece, I have been reluctant to say that any of these songs are throwbacks to older albums or that they could have belonged on any of the band's past efforts, but I have to be honest here (and I mean this as a compliment): lyrically and sonically, if you were to put this on Operation: Mindcrime, I think it would have fit perfectly. There is so much to it that has that Mindcrime vibe, and the lyrics echo the theme of the album perfectly. Unlike many of their prog-metal counterparts, Queensrÿche has an uncanny knack for musical economy, and the ability to pack a lot into a short amount of time; to make songs that can be a minute long and still convey all the emotional depth of a 20-minute progressive rock epic.

“Condition Hüman”: Speaking of progressive epics, the title track clocks in at nearly 8 minutes, and it has all the makings of the band's past ventures into epic territory. It has the glorious harmony of “Anybody Listening?”, the dramatic earnestness of “Promised Land”, the bombastic intensity of “Suite Sister Mary”, and the futuristic wonder of “Roads to Madness”...all without sounding like any of these songs at all. “Condition Hüman” is a triumphant return to their rightful place as a progressive metal band; where fans have always longed for them to be, as it is the place where they best thrive. Wilton and Lundgren's intricate solos coupled with Rockenfield's complex drumming and Eddie's elaborate grooves topped with Todd's passionately versatile vocal range and their imaginative, cerebral lyrics; it is the perfect closer to a damn perfect album.

Overall opinion: From beginning to end, Condition Hüman is an album that truly takes you on a journey, as good Queensrÿche albums are known to do. However, when I say this, I also mean it in the literal sense that you start off in one place and end up in another place entirely. One cannot determine just by listening to “Arrow of Time” or “Guardian” alone that you are listening to an album that is going to give you something like “Eye9”, “Condition Hüman”, or even “Just Us”. Each song is like a mini-movie or novel unfolding before the listener to shape images and landscapes that is entirely in one's own imagination. And that, my dear readers, is what Queensrÿche is all about. That's what they are at their best. That's what they lacked for all those years when one person was draining away the creative life force that once made them one of the best in a genre that they helped to innovate.

This is the band who, as I described in one of my previous blog entries, constructed a world through their music that I could escape to—not an imaginary fantasy world like many progressive, power, or symphonic metal bands are apt to do—but the real world, the here and now; a world that is not out of reach and where all things are possible because their music is the proof that these things are attainable as long as you have the courage and the determination to want it. That is the Queensrÿche I have missed for so many long years; the band I thought had gone away after the first splinter in the lineup back in 1998 and that finally came back to us in 2013. The band that wrote lyrics that encouraged their listeners to live their dreams; to “take hold of the flame” and live your life to the fullest. The band that once saved my life through music.

If the self-titled album was indicative of the band's return to their signature sound, then Condition Hüman is a testament that Queensrÿche as we know them and love them is here to stay. For anyone out there who loved the last album and thought it was incredible: Condition Hüman completely blows it out of the water. If the eponymous album was just an appetizer, then Condition Hüman is the main course. Everything that the last album promised, Condition Hüman delivered. This is the album fans have been waiting for since Promised Land, and maybe in some respects even longer than that; maybe even since Operation: Mindcrime.

Vocally, Todd is showcasing more of his vocal versatility; his lower range is demonstrated more often on this album than the previous one, matching the emotional range of the lyrics. His voice goes from high and uninhibited to low and ominous, depending on the song's message. He can rock it out with insane high vocals on tunes like “Guardian”, or set an eerie mood with his lower range on tracks like “Eye9”, then turn around and be completely gentle and sweet on ballads like “Just Us”. Todd has earned the accolades he has received as Queensrÿche's frontman. Contrary to how the trolls of the world would have you believe, he didn't just mimic or imitate his predecessor—he has brought back all of the vocal theatrics that his predecessor had abandoned long ago, and puts his own spin on it.

The rest of the band has also upped the ante as well. Parker Lundgren is no longer one of the “new guys” either; he, too, has earned his place in the band and as a songwriter, knows how to pen tunes that are every bit vintage Queensrÿche as anything written by his predecessor (and that is a huge compliment, coming from me). Because of this “young blood” injected into the dynamic, the other guys are rejuvenated too, and sound as exuberant and vibrant as they did in their early days.

I can't say it enough: ever since dropping the dead weight that was dragging them down, Queensrÿche has been on a roll and they are better than ever. Condition Hüman is indicative of this momentum, and if this is where they are at already with just the second album with this lineup, then one can only imagine what they will have in store for us next time.

My Queensrÿche is back. And I'm never letting them go!!!


Special thanks to Shelly Error-Ribe for sharing the gift of PledgeMusic!