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Eclectic Shred
James Williams 2012
The title says it all – and nothing. A speedy study in virtuoso grandiosity without much of a heroic pose in sight.When Don Williams presented “Tulsa Time” for the world to embrace, he might as well be singing about his Oklahoman namesake James who is making giant steps towards the fame and glory. Yet the Yellow Brick Road on the cover of the guitarist’s second solo album – its 2011’s predecessor, “The Epiphany”, was out under the X OPUS band bill – is misleading in its DIY layout, as is the “shred” part. Yes, he plays everything himself for the most part and casts rhythm section in the supporting niche, and yes, there’s a lot of blistering technique on display, but rather than engaging of a notes-per-second competition, all of it serves a general composition purpose, the one of WWII tragedy.

The solemn metal wave cuts in with the stereo panning in “B17 Flying Fortress” and reaches dramatic peak on the choral tide of “Auschwitz” and the orchestral surge of “Unborn Massacre”. But for all the instrumental brilliance mixed with classical influences, “Dropa Stones” – which, together with the well-streamlined title track, features the bass of SYMPHONY X’s Mike LePond and a keyboard solo by Yngwie Malmsteen’s acolyte Matt Guillroy – possesses a right dose of rocking roughness to fathom the emotional depth. And when the momentum is gained, the acoustic lace of guitar set against the piano in “Maxwell’s Castle” hits hard, straight through the heart, and laps into “Europa” where the folk choir and Eastern motifs evoke the culture swept away by the war fire. So there’s only closer “Journey to Andromeda”, spanning from heavy prog rock to web-light fusion, to justify superficially the titular diversity. Hail to the master, then.


Lion Music 2012
Epic and strong as the forces of nature themselves, but never monolithic, the international collective’s second offering marries the mundane to celestial.If this band’s self-titled debut looked like a regular prog metal opus, its follow-up that appears six years later and took three years to create comes up on the scale dictated by its title – looming large. Yet there are five grand pieces, where the obvious four make room for enigmatic “Quinta Essentia”, which is, indeed, essential for understanding of the contrast whole. Starting with “Fire”, Tony M. Vinci’s rifferama rage underscores Anthony Brown’s keyboard passages while Andy Engberg splits his voice into the molten lead and choirs to conjure up romantic anger of cinematic flames, as Greg Putnam’s Chapman stick adds fuel to it all.

The basses drive the drift of “Wind” with its faux orchestra and panoramic scope taking in both classical piano and cosmic synthesizers before acoustic strum is wrapped around gentle electronica underneath the vocals, and though sharp attack rules the game in “Water”, its lyrical charm is irresistible. And still, it’s “Earth” which mixes heavy rumble with world music strains, including sitar jive, and takes its beating heart beyond the predictable and into spiritual sun. That’s when “Quinta Essentia” spreads its wings to revisit the already familiar themes and infuse them with power. Here, another dimension to the band is revealed, and on their next album this alchemy should produce something special. Just not yet.


Secret Santa
Transmission 2012
The Cardiff elves get in the spirit of things to rock ‘n’ rollick and merrily frolic.
A Yuletide single is quite an icebreaker, for people are never more conservative than at Christmas time. So, as tradition dictates listening to a time-tested string of pop carols, it takes some frost-bitten cheek to try and add your own song to that acclaimed hall. But, marking their first decade on Earth with a new single, this band make a bold statement – cowbell-enhanced and catchy as confetti. While rooted in reality – it mentions Black Friday and cubicles – “Secret Santa” chops its way into the listener’s soul in the glam way, and rhythm section provide a lot of space for tune-twiddling, chorus-joining and booty-shaking. Plus a sprinkle of countermelody to up the level of joy and adventure. That’s the spirit and the mood! A quality addition to one’s annual, or perennial, playlist.


In Wonderland
Denomination 2012
Off with their heads! The Malmo crew throw a party and get away with murdering the time.In recent times, when a band have a “dirty” word in their name, the name of their game more often than not is glam, and this four guys aren’t an exclusion, although one can’t tell it from the quartet’s sophomore album’s auspicious beginning. Right off the bat, “Into The Wild” kicks in the purest heavy metal adrenalin – sharp riffs, big choruses, whatnot, hitting the heights with “Light Of The Candle” – yet slowly but surely the weight gets lighter and the sleazy grins brighter. And here’s the problem looms large of songs such as “Lovers Lane” being as generic as their titles, although it doesn’t chip away at their catchy sway.

Thankfully, Christopher Olsson’s guitars keep the rock ‘n’ roll spirit high and Bjorn Wilander’s bass provides a good groove all the way through, most fiercely on “Daughter Of The Reaper” and “Sinner” that Markus Winberg enhances with a solo drum spot, while new singer Kriss Lohikoski Svensson is as expressive here as in power ballads “Addicted” and “Make It Last”. And then there’s “Shadowland”, strong and serious, blowing the glitter off and connecting to the album’s very title. If that’s the direction to go further, wonders will reveal themselves rather soon.


Better Off Alone
Ryan Boss 2012
Acoustic troubadour from Georgia lays it on the rock line with a twist and a twang.Lately, a cool cat with a guitar in his hand more often than not sends a note to the dixie pixie field which has become so crowded one finds it hard to stand out from the nu-folk breed. Boss’s different, though, as he clearly states in his debut’s title cut, and while the piece is traditionally plaintive the message gets deep thanks to its bluesy inflections. And here comes the sweet contrast between the 23-year-old’s unplugged disposition and the inherent electricity of his songs that wrap harsh reality – there’s a dark undercurrent throughout the album – with rock hooks. That’s how sharp it starts and ends, with a memorable warning of “It Must Be Dangerous” and no less searing kitchen-sink of “Running In Place”, so when the lad sings of being up to no good and high of cocaine, one can help but feel he’s been there and done that.

But the very same barebone approach turns into hard-hitting magic once it’s applied to the matters of the heart, as in the catchy “When She’s Around” or “State Line”, where Boss pours his emotions out in the way many an older men would struggle with. In other places, still, this honesty may jar with a melodic repetitiveness, like in “Unbound”, which is saved by an occasional guitar curlicue, yet “Memory Lane” and desperate “I’m Sorry, Girl” drink from the ancient well to pulls the listener in and never let go. Ragged and warm at the same time, Ryan’s voice makes everything homely, and for all his lonesome stance one might actually wish to share space with Boss.


Live On The Foxtrot Tour
Ozit 2012
An amazing document of a long-gone era when magic was palpable from the venerable Scottish folkers.Back in 1973, a concert recording wasn’t that cheap to preserve a support artist’s set for posterity but, as SDT were stealing the air from headliners GENESIS almost every night – and eventually got booted off the trek – someone at Manchester Free Trade Hall wisely decided to run the tape. The result, on its 2012 release, was stunning enough for the band to reform and mark the 40th anniversary of their signing to Charisma and of their debut on the label whence all bar one of these songs come.

There’s a wonder and tension in the masterful build-up from the humble, if intense, bluesy shimmer of “Let Me Down”, where Grahame Smith’s acidic violin cuts through Chris Adams’ strum to spice up his and Pauline Adams’ frenetic singing, to epic, mesmerizing, “Csardas”-embroidered tapestry of grand finale, “Jack Diamond”. On the way, the group’s biggest hit, “Circus”, outgrows its studio version to create a genuine traveling show atmosphere, after the pace and the path take an adventurous turn with pseudo-traditional ballad-cum-march “Then I Met The Lady”, which seems to have never made it onto vinyl but evokes a round of applause here that’s reciprocated with a rocking, percussion-shaken and banshee-haunted “My Real Hero”. And while “Regent St Incident” soothes the excitement in the sweet cabaret manner, the country vaudeville of “Hooked On The Road” throws the merriment back on track.

It was too much for Phil Collins, even though Peter Gabriel is said to encourage SDT play encores. Off the road, all of these threads would be woven later in the year into the brilliant "The Machine That Cried" yet, sadly, the momentum of that monumental tour had already been lost.


Year Of The Hunger
Lion Music 2012
The Venetian four in search of the lost major chord: ennui reigns while hope looms.These days it’s hard to be original in the hard rock realm, and sometimes all trying feels futile, which is the case of this Italian quartet. Having chimed in at the break of 2012 with an EP, the band serves up their debut full-lengther that is strong as a statement and a demonstration of dexterous delivery, but its desperation might get down on one’s nerves. The multi-layered instrumental “The Arising Of Volition” sums it all well, yet the mood changes for better when the group discard their modern, alternative edge and push closer to traditional heavy metal as in dramatic “Before Abigail” or, even better, progressive rock.

They impress when the two worlds collide in opener “Hyperuranium”, where rock ‘n’ roll riffs underpin a bright tune as Enrico Longhin switches from siren call to growl and, together with Davide Carraro, weaves a delicate guitar web for one of the solos before the assault is back with a vengeance. But it’s so majestic once piano picks up the melody of “Venice”, originally shaped vocally with the help of Debbie Hyshka, and the titular instrumental packs the right dose of elegy. The problem is, apathy lurking in the chameleon heart of “The Others” comes too frontal for the likes of the organ-helped “Clouds And Shales”: such a minor flow doesn’t do THE MOOR good. They should get hot. Out, demons, out!


From Nothing To Now
Dirty Lips 2012
Back in the saddle after a dozen years in limbo, the Deutsch quartet are back with a smack.It was 2000 when, after a decade-long run and a sole album in the can, this Hamburg band decided to call it quits, yet, with each of the players sticking to their instrument, continued to write. So as their debut’s title was “Nothing’s Better Than Your…”, its follow-up catches up to collect the fruits of the wilderness years and makes a tasty dish out of the hard ‘n’ heavy brew. The taste is good enough to linger on the lips, and if they suggest some rolling influence, Marco the guitarist serves up a string of the Keith Richard-patented licks on “Whenever”, only to follow it with a Southern rock swagger of “Shoot Me”.

For the most part, though, the drift is rather generic and, therefore, comfortable. The hooks and lyrics’ predictability is compensated with a couple of deceptive beginnings, as the piano-driven “That’s Why” with its sparse chorus lines and acoustically framed “Nothing Matters” – both starting off with “I’m sitting…” – smoothly switch from a ballad mode to the full power rockers. So much for forlorn feelings set once the musical box of opener “Nobody Like You” gives way to anger that fizzles out with a short farewell spit which is “I’m Right”. And they are right, especially when Frank’s voice applies panache to the likes of “No Money, No Friends” and “(If You Don’t Like It) I Don’t Care”. But, in essence, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s hard not to like it.


Decades Of Despair
Transubstans 2013
A light in the gloom: for their fourth longplay in almost three decades Swedish doomsters cast longer shadows across Europe.That looks like a genre betrayal, to end an album bearing such a title with a straightaway, piano-led reading of perennial “What A Wonderful World”, yet this Scandinavian trio have never been your regular prophets of entropy. Flowing unhurriedly into their 27th year on Earth, the band leave no slack whatsoever and seamlessly combine Christian and Hitchcockian themes, but “Decades Of Despair”, both the record and its title track, set the solemnity in the woods of their continent’s Eastern reaches, and while the “if something’s meant to be, we just should let it go” paradigm is dark, the lava-like melodies are riveting.

When folk motifs cut up the molten riffs the drift becomes eerie, yet whereas “Stums Polska” and “Hwila” conjure Slavonic ghosts, the accordion-sprinkled take on Lars Hollmer’s “Boeves Psalm” is as joyfully Nordic as it gets. As Roger Johansson’s guitars weave spell around Christer Nilsson’s vocals, prog elements spice up the arrangements, most brightly in the memorable “Ashes To Ashes (1, 23, 45)”, and “Iscariot” can easily rock the crowd with its contagious choral lines. In the same vein, “Marion Crane” drinks from hard rock well rather than extreme metal’s one and is all the better for it. So even though “Codex Dei” stomps on the trodden path, the fiddle lightning lightens the way and beckons to keep pacing into this mellifluous desperation.


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