Monday, July 31, 2017

Album review: Exit Eden—Rhapsodies in Black (2017)

Album: Rhapsodies in Black
Artist: Exit Eden
Genre: Symphonic metal
Label: Napalm Records
Tracks: 11

*Review originally posted at the Female-fronted Power Facebook page.

Photo credit: Christian Barz-Klein

What do you get when you combine the talents of 4 respected voices on the symphonic metal scene, and put them together to record an album full of covers that are anything but symphonic or metal? You get Exit Eden, the collaborative effort of Amanda Somerville (who has sung with everyone from Kamelot to Epica), Clémentine Delauney (best known for her work with Serenity, and as the frontwoman for Visions of Atlantis), Marina LaTorraca (who has sung with Avantasia), and Anna Brunner (who has been in rock bands ever since she was a teen). Four distinct voices, personalities, and musical backgrounds, with one goal: to show how diverse metal can be by taking songs from any genre and putting their twist on them.

The concept isn't entirely new: Within Temptation did something similar on their 2013 album The Q-Music Sessions, but that was a project spearheaded by a radio station and had never been intended to become an album. The songs were also chosen for them, and the band was given a week-long deadline to transform the tunes into their own. Because of this, not all the songs ended up on the finished album, due to not getting copyright permission (such as their cover of “Skyfall”, which did end up on the Exit Eden album). Whereas with Exit Eden, these are all songs of their own choosing, and they had time to not only get the necessary copyrights, but also to hone and craft these songs any way they liked.

Photo credit: Christian Barz-Klein

From the opening track, I am hooked; but anyone who can do a good job on a Depeche Mode cover is going to win my heart. Depeche Mode is my favorite non-metal band of all time, and Exit Eden takes their Black Celebration classic “A Question of Time” and gives it a bombastic symphonic metal remake. Right away they have won me over, even if I do not recognize another song on this compilation.

However, there are other songs here that I am familiar with; such as their cover of Madonna's late-’90s hit “Frozen”. This song seems to be a favorite in the symphonic metal genre when covering songs, and I haven't heard a rendition this good since Lindsay Schoolcraft covered this track a couple of years ago (coming from me, this is a huge compliment, as I am a big fan of Lindsay's music). Exit Eden also does a fantastic job on the Bryan Adams tune “Heaven”, which just kickstarted my ’80s nostalgia feels.

Photo credit: Christian Barz-Klein

Another tune that is just tailor-made for this genre is the ’80s mega-hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, a song I have always felt needed a symphonic metal makeover. It has been my long-held opinion that Jim Steinman is one of the forefathers of symphonic rock—whether their descendants recognize it or not—and have often wondered why his material is not covered more within the scene. But finally, after 35 years, someone has done it the way I wished it would sound. Much as I love the original, Bonnie Tyler's voice always grated on my nerves, and I felt the song was better suited for a more operatic vocalist. If the Depeche Mode cover hadn't already won me over, this would have made me a believer.

That being said, the selling point of this album, for me, is not so much how they tackle the songs I know and love, but what they can do with material I don't know, or songs I downright hate, such as Katy Perry's “Firework”. If I never hear that song again it would be too soon, and I almost dreaded the thought of having to hear it again for this review, even if it is a cover. Their version is not bad; I don't think I will ever be a fan of the song, but maybe I wouldn't have found the original half as annoying if it had sounded more like this!

Band photo

The rest of the album features pop covers of everyone from Backstreet Boys to Rihanna, and since I am pressed for time on this review, I did not have the time to listen to the originals and compare them. To my ear, they are pleasant-sounding songs, and I might just give the originals a listen sometime. Their take on the song “Impossible” reminded me a little of “The Show Must Go On” by Queen. Lady Gaga is one of the few pop artists out there that I really like, and Exit Eden’s version of her song “Paparazzi” is an energetic hard rocker that is a nod to Gaga's love of metal.

To wrap this up, I highly recommend this album as a “starter” if you are new to symphonic metal or are trying to bring a new fan into this type of music. These are well-known songs done in a particular style, so if you like these, you might like the overall genre of music too. If you are a fan of any of these ladies, it is a given you will enjoy this album too. Whether you love this genre of music or just have an inclination to hear some interesting covers of pop hits and ’80s classics, then Rhapsodies in Black just might be what you are looking for.

Photo credit: Christian Barz-Klein

Special thanks to Henk van Nieuwenhoven at Female Fronted Power.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Femme-Metal Friday: Hail Sagan “Stealing the Crown”

Band photo

In case you missed my post yesterday, I am expanding on the Hump Day Hot Ticket feature due to a high volume of reviews. Now I will not only share a video on Wednesday to get you over the Hump Day slump, but now I will add a little extra goodness to your Fridays by featuring some of the best female-fronted metal I can find.

This week, for the first edition of “Femme-Metal Friday”, I bring to you a band I have written about here before: Hail Sagan, another L.A. band that I really enjoy and hope to share more of as time goes on. Consisting of vocalist Sagan Amery, guitarist Nick Quijano (also known as Sci55ors from the band Powerman 5000), and masked bandmates known as “The Nothing”, Hail Sagan brings together the sounds of goth, alternative, electronica, and puts a heavy metal bite into it.

As mentioned before in my review of the band's “Dark Cloud” video, Hail Sagan also uses music as a way to raise awareness for issues that matter to them: Sagan is an outspoken advocate for anti-bullying, and like fellow musicians Lindsay Schoolcraft and Alissa White-Gluz, promotes a healthy vegan lifestyle. The band also plays fundraisers for veterans and mental health awareness. One thing about bands from L.A. that often gets overlooked is that we are a socially conscious town, and even if a band is not openly political in their music, most local musicians can be found supporting one cause or another through their music (even Slayer, the most brutal metal band ever to come out of Huntington Park, has been known to cuddle with rescue cats!). It is something I have always been proud of as a native Southlander, and it is something I find very admirable about Hail Sagan.

For their latest video, “Stealing the Crown”, the band gets more in touch with their dark aesthetic sensibility by giving us imagery of a snowy landscape while we are still in the middle of summer! I once read somewhere that MTV Europe (or some other video music channel from way back when) never aired wintry-themed videos during summer months, and I can see why—seeing all this snow and fog when it is over 100 degrees outside makes me a little wistful for a chilly breeze. Then again, I'm from Southern California, where it never snows, so it has about the same effect in July as it would in January!

The Nothing is dressed all in black, a stark contrast in the white snow, as Sagan moves through the woods in her trademark purple, like a Little Violet Riding Hood! She is carrying a basket, dropping dollar bills along her path (just like Hansel and Gretel, she is leaving her figurative “bread” behind; “bread” being an old slang term for money). She is being followed by some shady characters known as the “Greed Monsters”, who immediately swipe her money no sooner than it hits the ground. Looking dead-eyed and listless, the Greed Monsters catch up to her, taking her basket away and ripping off her hood. The camera shows the torn cloak in the snow, as Sagan flees from them into an icy pool of slush, where she finds the titular crown and claims it for herself. Now wearing the crown on her head, she and the band are all dressed in white, blending in to the frosty backdrop.

For more information on Hail Sagan, visit their official website.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

New weekly feature

Over the past 15 months since I started the “Hump Day Hot Ticket” feature, I thought it would be a fun way to discover new bands and to spread the word about the talent out there that could use some more attention. I thought that at best, I would get a small readership and perhaps enough material so that I could maintain this on a weekly basis.

However, it would be an understatement to say that things have far exceeded my expectations! In just the last 7 months, I have been fortunate to include national acts such as Queensrÿche and Cradle of Filth in this feature. Several bands have returned to me and asked if I would review them more than once; my third review of Chinese electronic goth-rock band Aggronymph has received nearly 6000 hits and has surpassed my KNAC tribute (my personal pride and joy) as my most-viewed article here. I had reviews scheduled up to 2 months in advance.

In a fast-paced world such as ours, let's face it, a 2-month waiting list just doesn't cut it anymore. Bands want their material reviewed while it is still new. I realized that reserving these reviews to one day a week was no longer enough, and it was time to do something about it!

Starting this Friday, I am expanding on the Hump Day Hot Ticket feature, and introducing “Femme-Metal Friday”. The premise is exactly the same, except now Fridays are strictly for female-fronted bands. I get a lot of review requests for femme-metal bands, so this will help to lighten the load somewhat. I may still feature some female-fronted bands on Wednesday, but I will save it for those bands that might feature a male vocalist, or might not quite categorize itself as metal.

I hope this will open up more possibilities to review more bands. Perhaps this can also give me an opportunity to review older videos in the future as well, and not always focus on the latest thing. Now that I have expanded this to twice a week, the options are limitless.

I hope you will continue to enjoy these video reviews, and you are always welcome to suggest a band for me to review in the comments section! Stay tuned for the first new Friday installment tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Hump Day Hot Ticket: Thrillkiller “The King of 1984”

Photo credit: Brent Seward

For those of us old enough to remember, do you recall the days when a new music video was a social event? How you and your friends talked about it at school all week, and then gathered together at the nearest television with access to MTV to watch the “world premiere”? How many of us who grew up in that time would listen to a song and dream up what that music video would look like, and then were let down whenever the video looked nothing at all the way you had imagined? How many times have we held a crystallized image of the perfect music video in our minds, and only hoped that someday, what we saw in our heads would come to life on the screen?

Because now, someone has made such a video, and it is Thrillkiller's latest tune, “The King of 1984”. With a title like that, it immediately conjures up certain imagery, and at least for me, I can finally see a music video play out almost exactly how I pictured it to be. From the moment those synths open up the track, a rush of ’80s nostalgia hits all the sweet spots in your brain, and you are transported back to a simpler time when Aqua Net could solve any problem, and a man could wear hot-pink spandex, purple eyeshadow and blue eyeliner, yet still be considered a hunk of red-blooded masculinity.

From the start, the video for “The King of 1984” fits right in with all that ’80s aesthetic; even the opening credits are in that space-age, futuristic-looking font that was used in nearly every sci-fi movie back then. As soon as vocalist Rob Bradley makes his entrance wearing a red leather jacket, it is a throwback to the classic Michael Jackson videos from the era, and as the video progresses, the references don't stop there. 

As Rob makes his way into a dim, smoky bar, we meet other characters that could very easily time-warp back to 1984 and look as though they belong there. We see punk rock girls dressed in black with closely-cropped hair; guys wearing skintight one-piece jumpsuits, big sunglasses, and an outfit that looks like a space suit designed by the Village People. It's so damn fabulous, and we aren't even a minute into the video yet.

While alternating with onstage shots of the band, we start getting into the video's concept, which in itself is a complete homage to ’80s videos. Looking like a cross between the “Beat It” video and Mad Max, the basic premise is of a bar fight gone bad...but there is much more to it than that! While Rob is chilling at the bar and minding his business, a cute blonde decides to buy him a drink. We also see that she hasn't been the only one in the bar who has been eyeing him; no sooner than another girl pulls the blonde away than the other guys in the bar (played by the other members of Thrillkiller)—including the space-age Village People guy, credited as the motorcycle punk—start to crowd around him.

Then as the funky bass solo begins, all hell breaks loose! Fists fly, bottles are broken...Rob manages to get a breather long enough to have another drink, and then back to fighting. As he delivers the final blow that leaves the motorcycle punk on his back, Rob yanks the sunglasses off his face, kisses the blonde, and struts out into the street, where the ultimate ’80s ride is waiting for him: a DeLorean, of course!

As Rob revs up and races off, the motorcycle punk is hot on his trail, and an epic chase begins. At this point, the video is pure tribute to Back to the Future (Easter egg: try reading the car's license plate!), and on a more subtle level, to Kung Fury (i.e., the greatest short film of the 21st century). As the motorcycle punk moves closer, Rob puts the pedal to the metal and gives us one last ’80s reference for the ages.

I have seen the future, and it is 1984.

For more information on Thrillkiller, visit their official website.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Hump Day Hot Ticket: The Spider Accomplice “User”

Band photo

One of my favorite newer bands to come out of the L.A. rock scene over the last couple of years, this is not the first time I have written about The Spider Accomplice, and I am pretty sure it won't be my last. A refreshing mix of alternative rock, quirky folk, and everything in-between, The Spider Accomplice beautifully captures the diverse and unique spirit of L.A.: a place that waves its freak flag like no other, and a place that any free spirit would be proud to call home.

When I listen to TSA's music, I do not feel homesick; immediately I am transported and VK Lynne's voice takes me on a beach cruise with the windows down and the temperature at a perfect 75 degrees. It is relaxing, unimposing, and inviting; much like the nature of Southern California. We don't ask for outside acceptance or approval; we just want to do our own thing.

The Spider Accomplice is all about “doing their own thing”, and doing it well. In fact, their new video for their brand-new song “User”, shows TSA in their element, and all the various ways in which they are indeed “doing their own thing”. We see them in the midst of their music-making process, as an occasional lyric scrolls across the screen. As we see, it isn't always a glamorous procedure: there are missed cues, there are technical difficulties, and a lot of waiting around. But even during the most tedious moments, they all appear to be having fun, and each have their own unique methods of stress-relief.

For more information on The Spider Accomplice, visit their official website.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Hump Day Hot Ticket: Cradle of Filth “Heartbreak and Seance”

Band photo

One of the premier names in extreme metal, Cradle of Filth has been going strong for nearly 3 decades and shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Their unique blend of gothic, horror, and symphonic elements fused into a black metal visage, Cradle of Filth has survived every musical trend and silly fad, without ever compromising their trademark sound. Now embarking on their 12th album—Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay—Cradle of Filth is roaring back on the scene with that dramatic flair that is distinctly their own.

For the band's latest video (and Cryptoriana's first single), “Heartbreak and Seance”, there is no question you are watching a Cradle of Filth video from the start. The dark imagery that they are known for is all there: death and mourning to a snowy backdrop. Dani Filth's piercing scream cuts right through you, as he stands before a mic stand that looks like a cross between withered tree branches and antlers. A somber group of bereaved mourners stand beside a still and bloodied figure. Female vocalist Lindsay Schoolcraft is wearing a headdress fashioned like a skull, as she provides her heavenly vocals in contrast to Dani's harshness. More imagery of skulls and naked bodies, as the departed person is covered by a heavy black cloak and the grieving friends start playing on a Ouija board; all while a raven mentioned in the lyrics unobtrusively holds court.

The song's title is “Heartbreak and Seance”, so the theme of the video is plain to see. The attempt of the mourners to contact their departed loved one is not only shown with the Ouija board scene, but also with images of two naked bodies wrapped around a skeleton, and snakes slithering around the prostrate form of a woman in a white dress. The deceased returns again, this time painted completely in black—showing his ghostly state—holding the lifeless body of one of the grief-stricken women in his arms, as if offering a sacrifice.

For more information on Cradle of Filth, visit their official website.

Special thanks to Lindsay Schoolcraft.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Hump Day Hot Ticket: Vintersea “Skies Set Ablaze”

Band photo

There is something about the Pacific Northwest that produces some of the best music. Many of my favorite bands are from Seattle (one of which I have written about on this blog more than once!). If you have ever been to the region, the aesthetic of its music scene makes much more sense: there is a dark loveliness to it; a dense forest washed by rain, where everything feels fresh and new, yet older than time. There is a vibrancy to the music from the Northwest, with a maturity at its core that sees far beyond its years. It sounds like nothing you have ever heard before, yet hauntingly familiar and comfortably identifiable. I truly believe that music is a product of its environment, and each corner of the world has its own unique imprint on the music it produces. The Pacific Northwest is no different, and no matter what genre of music its residents choose for artistic expression, that distinct mark shows through time and time again.

Oregon's Vintersea is a newer band on the scene that uses their brand of progressive metal to capture “the majesty of the Pacific Northwest”, and this is apparent in their very first video, “Skies Set Ablaze”. Some Rush-influenced guitar work opens up this 7-minute track with a wintry motif. Alternating between the conceptual side of the video, where vocalist Avienne wanders through a snowy landscape, and the performance side, where Avienne wears both a white and a black dress (white for “clean” vocals, black for growly vocals), and rocks out with the band.

Thematically, the video's story centers around a woman lost in the forest in the middle of winter. She tries starting a fire, she sleeps in a hole in the ground for shelter, and follows a small river until she is seen digging frantically in the snow for one small sign of life: a small crimson-red flower. As the river carries the red flower away, we are reminded of the fragility of life.

For more information on Vintersea, visit their official Facebook page.