Saxon at Come and Take It Live, Austin, TX 2/14/2019

I feel sadness for those in the world who have never witnessed a Saxon live show.  This being the celebration of their 40th year as a band, it goes without saying that the boys have gotten their performances down.  But it never feels like jaded pros just going through the motions.  I mean, shit, the eldest guys in the group have got to be pushing 70 at this point.  You’d honestly have to understand if they weren’t giving it 100% on an average night at a small club in Austin, TX on a random Thursday night running through their umpteenth-thousandth or so performance of Wheels of Steel.  But there they were just banging through their massive catalog of songs like a much younger band with plenty to prove.  Biff is just an ageless wonder.  Headbanging and jumping up and down like a maniac with a mischievous gleam in his eye like he still can’t believe people are still paying him to do this shit.  This band is a fucking institution and if you haven’t seen them play, get to rectifying that shit immediately.  They aren’t going to be going forever.  You’ve got to cherish the special ones.

Strong Arm of the Law

Crusader

Princess of the Night

Soen-Lotus

It looks like the year 2019 is the year that we finally get a new Tool album.  At least, that’s the rumor anyway.  Who knows?  It seems like those dudes get their rocks off on jerking with their fans’ expectations.  At any rate, if you don’t feel like engaging in the “will they/won’t they release the album” discourse, just go out and purchase the new Soen album.  It will act as a salve for all of your Tool-related angst.

Soen is a melodic, prog-influenced band from Sweden whose initial claim to fame was it being the post-Opeth landing spot of drummer Martin Lopez.  Lopez is such a stud.  I would honestly listen to anything this dude plays.  The biggest complaint surrounding Soen was hinted at earlier in this post.  They dig some Tool.  So much so that a lot of their earlier material damn near sounded like straight up Tool plagiarism.  Not that it was bad.  The playing and the vocals were always performed impeccably, but there was just this nagging lack of originality to the proceedings.

So, the new album.  The Tool-tinged flavor is still there, but it really feels like Soen is finally starting to find a bit of their own sound.  The guitars have a bit of a different sound and feel on this one.  I think the Tool sound comes through the most during the slower tempo songs.  The opener, Opponent, gives a good signal to the listener that this album is going to be a bit different than the Soen releases of the past.  I dig it overall.  Definitely the best album the group has released this far in their career.  Keep grinding for your own sound boys.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

Swallow the Sun-When a Shadow Is Forced Into the Light

Well, this is a creepy as shit album cover.  I feel like this creature could definitely end up being the main character is the next horror movie franchise.  I mean, he has to be scarier than The Nun, right?

Swallow the Sun is back after a lengthy absence.  And that can be understandable after their last release, Songs From the North, was essentially a unheard of triple-album.  There was some really great material on that release, but it just seemed like such a daunting undertaking just to start to digest a release that contained three albums worth of songs in one sitting.  The new album is a single release of eight songs and it really seems like an EP compared to Songs From the North.

The new album has everything you’d expect from a Swallow the Sun release.  It’s dreary.  It’s melancholy.  It feels like it was created in a land where a good portion of their year is spent in darkness.  Dirge-like and beautiful at the same time.  This is the balance Swallow the Sun has mastered.  And it’s nice to have this one come in an easier to digest format this time around.

3.5 flip flops out of 5

The Neal Morse Band-The Great Adventure

Sweet Jesus!  We’ve actually got a Christian prog rock album on today’s platter.

The trope in the metal world has always been, why has Satan always garnered all of the talented folks and Jesus is left with Michael Sweet and Stryper?  Why is that?  Well, for the most part metal is about the dark side of the human condition.  Despair, hopelessness, staring into the abyss, the certain inescapable trudge to the unknowns of death, the possibility of hell and burning for all eternity, giving the middle finger to established institutions.  These are the things that are cornerstones of metal.  Christianity, hope, love and goodwill towards mankind just don’t seem to mesh well with the origins of what metal is all about.  Plus, lyrical themes of love, hope, forgiveness and an eternal bliss in service to the Jesus just don’t pair all that well with death screams, double bass blastbeats and fuzzed-out and crunchy down-tuned guitar riffs.

Even though I count myself among the great unwashed as far as religion goes, I did grow up inside the church.  And I think this fact has always led me to not to completely foreclose the idea of a really good Christian metal band existing.  I mean, have you read the Bible?  There is some seriously fucked up imagery and shit in there.  Smitings and plagues and crucifixions and people rising from the dead and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth.  The Old Testament God gets fucking pissed off all the time and throws these massive fucking tantrums that results in tons of people just getting wiped out.  It’s perfect fodder for a Slayer album.

What the fuck we’re we talking about again?  Oh, yeah, the possibility of a decent and respectable Christian metal band.  I mean, King’s X is probably as close as we’ve gotten and they aren’t really a “Christian” band per se.  Nor are they really a traditional metal band, either.  But they are a highly respected group (and one of my Top 5 favorite bands of all time) that weaves Christian themes throughout their albums.  So, it’s possible.

This brings us to our current band and album.  The Neal Morse Band is a prog rock juggernaut.  If you are not familiar with them, they are the current incarnation of the former leader/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist of prog legends Spock’s Beard, Neal Morse.  Back in the early 2000s, Neal became a born-again Christian and he decided to leave Spock’s Beard to create Christian-centric music.  His buddy from Dream Theater, Mike Portnoy, joined him on drums and he released a number of Christian prog albums as a solo artist.  To me, these albums were basically an extension of his creations in Spock’s Beard, but with a Christian slant.  It was still really good music, albeit with a bit of a preachy type slant.  A few years ago, Morse and Portnoy rounded out a stable lineup for their Christian prog machine and rechristened (heh) it as The Neal Morse Band.  The Great Adventure is the latest release of this entity.  This album is for fans of Yes, Styx, ELO, Rush, Dream Theater and Spock’s Beard.  It really hits all of your main prog elements.  Being a double album, there is plenty of room for the guys to run the gamut of harder edge rock to poppier Beatles-inspired tracks to some downright virtuoso-type metal shit.  Lyrically, this is probably the least overtly Christian album that Morse has put out since he left Spock’s Beard.  So, if you don’t feel like having your music get a little preachy in its presentation, this one is probably a good starting point for you with The Neal Morse Band.  It’s catchy.  It’s infectious.  It’s one of those albums whose songs’ melodies will get stuck in your head.  This is just a good rockin’ album.  Sweet Jesus!

4 flip flops out of 5

Evergrey-The Atlantic

Well, dammit.  Look at that album cover.  I was really hoping this one was going to land in that masterpiece category of albums.  After listening to it through a couple of times now, I honestly don’t really know what to say about it except that it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Evergrey.  When they are on, they craft some of most arrestingly beautiful music metal has to offer.  Goosebumps, man.  Their best material provides goosebumps in spades.  Sometimes their lyrical content and musical performance combine is such a way to produce something completely devastating emotionally.  However, when they are off or seem like they are cruising on autopilot, you end up with some capably produced music for sure, but it just never rises to that level of emotional gut-punch that you expect from these guys.  And that’s really where The Atlantic dwells.  Tom Englund pores his guts out vocally and the rest of the band sounds great, but the material just doesn’t rise to to the level of say, The Inner Circle or In the Search of Truth.  I honestly feel like this is probably the weakest release since the return of guitarist Henrik Danhage and drummer Jonas Ekdahl came back to the fold in 2014.

At the end of the day, The Atlantic is just lacking in goosebumps, man.  And its a damn shame.

3 flip flops out of 5

Soilwork-Verkligheten

Damn,  2019 is starting out slow.  We’re damn near the end of January and I’m just now getting to my first album review of the year.  I feel like I’ve been let you down, dear reader.  I’m really hoping this trend isn’t indicative that the remainder of the year in metal is going to be on the sparse side of things.  At least on one positive/surprising note, it looks like Tool is shooting for an April release for their long-awaited album.  So, I’m just going to expect the world to finally implode sometime in late March.

Tum-da-dum!! Soilwork gets to honor of getting review numero uno this time around.  These feisty Swedes have become an institution in the Gothenburg melodic death metal sound over the 20+ years they have been active.  Like most bands who have managed to eek out a career as long as they have, there have been many changes in personnel and changes in sound over the years.  This album is the first without long-time drummer Dirk Verbueren, who moved on to become another in the long line of drummers for Megadeth, and the introduction of youngster Bastian Thursgaard on the kit.  It’s always kind of sad when an important piece to a band’s sound leaves, as with Verbueren, but it is also interesting to see how the new piece fits in with the established band.  When the first song kicked in on Verkligheten, I was reminded of when I first heard Piece of Mind and Nicko McBrain was introduced in the most “Look at what a bad ass the new guy is!”-way possible on Where Eagles Dare.  The aptly named “Arrival” showcases Thursgaard at his blast-beatiness.  Dude really has some serious chops and the band doesn’t seem to be missing a beat in the drumming area with his arrival.

The sound on this new one is a different animal than past Soilwork releases.  Sure, it still has that distinctive Soilwork sound that is primarily marked by vocalist Bjorn “Speed” Strid’s combination of hardcore tinged death metal vocals and his almost emo-esque clean vocal croon.  The biggest difference on this album is the sound of the guitars.  For my second Iron Maiden comparison of the review, this album reminds me of the later era albums Maiden has put out.  Maiden no longer employs the crunchy metal guitar sound from the Powerslave and Number of the Beast era.  They are still heavy, but their guitar tones have gotten cleaner as the band has matured.  I feel like this may be the start of a more mature/cleaner Soilwork sound.  Now, I don’t mean that they are getting any less heavy.  This album still has plenty of punch (and blast beats out the ass).  It just feels like the intensity and aggression on this album has a different flavor than the albums from the band’s early days had.

3.5 flip flops out of 5