Thursday, March 10, 2011

Album of the Year: 2010 - The Middle of the Road

Angra - Aqua
About on par with their previous album, Angra once again manages to fall short of the bar they set with 2004's Temple of Shadows. The material is fairly solid overall, but it never achieves anything greater than slightly above average. A pleasant enough listen, but nothing sticks with you afterward. Another problem this album faces is the production - prog/power metal like this calls out for a rich, syrupy sound; however, this album sounds a bit too thin and crystal-clear. Shard of ice rather than a torrent of water, if you will. Fans of the genre should enjoy this, but there are much better examples out there - even in Angra's own catalogue.
Best Track: Arising Thunder
Rating: 6/10

Electric Wizard - Black Masses
Increased psychedelic rock influence, a faster overall pace and more focus on leads and vocals - certainly not bad things in and of themselves, but in the context of Electric Wizard's established sound they represent cracks in the foundation. Dopethrone, Let Us Prey, Come My Fanatics... etc. are hulking beasts made of stoner doom riffs, slowly heaving their way through layers of fuzz and static. Black Masses stacks up as a featherweight among heavyweights when viewed alongside the rest of Electric Wizard's monolithic catalogue - despite the fact that it is still a fairly solid record.
Best Track: Satyr IX
Rating: 6/10

City of Satellites - Machine is My Animal
Part shoegaze, part dream pop - this shows flashes of great promise but ultimately falls a bit short. The problem is that, despite being similar in goal, the two genres have a fairly different way of getting there - fuzzy haze versus smooth and shiny tones. I believe it is possible to mix these to great success; however, City of Satellites approach often tends to neuter both sides, leaving us with a muddled style. Shoegaze reverb disturbing the dream pop sheen which in turn stifles the rock energy when it tries to emerge. It seems the kids just aren't hitting it off here.
Best Track: BMX
Rating: 6/10

Enforcer - Diamonds
If you are looking for originality, I would certainly advise looking elsewhere. This is retro heavy metal done by the book, line for line. You've heard every riff, every lead, every gang vocal a thousand times before - but they've done their homework and gotten it right. If nothing else, this album is an incredibly fun listen. The tracks are reasonably varied, despite not being particularly original, and are all extremely well performed. One thing is for sure, Olof "Enforcer" Wikstrand would sound right at home amongst the top wailers of the 80's.
Best Track: Roll the Dice
Rating: 6/10

Briton Rites - For Mircalla
Traditional doom metal that basically plays like Witchfinder General worship? Should be good for a spin or two. You can basically take the review right above this, swap any references to "heavy metal" with "doom metal" and you'll not be far off. Once again, a very well executed retro/worship album, but not a whole lot in the way of originality. At over an hour is starts to drag a bit, but the material is generally strong enough to overcome that problem. If you're suffering severe doom withdrawal symptoms, I can prescribe this album - it's not a cure, but it should satiate your immediate cravings.
Best Track: Vampire Hunter, 1600
Rating: 6/10

Barren Earth - Curse of the Red River
The problem with supergroups is that many fans of the individual members tend to build up utterly unreachable expectations and doom the project to fail from the start. I must admit that I probably fall into this category in regards to this particular release - with members from Amorphis, Moonsorrow, Kreator and Swallow the Sun coming together, how could it not be incredible? By being passable, but wholly unremarkable melodic death metal. Sure, there are some very cool passages here and there - but nothing compared to the earth-shattering material the mind conjures when glancing through the lineup.
Best Track: Curse of the Red River
Rating: 6/10

The Black Keys - Brothers
The album is a bit overlong and gets pretty thin during the second half, but the first fifteen minutes put some fantastic blues rock front and center. Much like their fellow two-piece garage rockers, The White Stripes, this band really excels when they pare down their sound to its most simple, straightforward roots. This is the case during the first five tracks - simple, rocking riffs and some of the band's best vocals equate to a very enjoyable opening act. Unfortunately, they start to lose their way after that - meandering, experimenting and generally losing the listener's attention. They might very well end up running away with the "Most Original Album Art of the Year" award though.
Best Track: Tighten Up
Rating: 6/10

Asteroid - II
Some nice retro-sounding stoner rock on a moderate dosage of psychedelics, this album is just missing something to kick it to the next level for me. I think one thing that prevents the album from sticking in my mind is the guitar tone. Something about the guitar leaves me with an impression of it being soft and rounded, rather than having the edge needed to really drive these riffs home. Another problem I have is that the album shows a consistent, if only slight, decline in quality from beginning to end - this doesn't really generate a desire for repeat listens.
Best Track: Garden
Rating: 6/10

Wuthering Heights - Salt
This is no Far From the Madding Crowd, but even on an off-album, Wuthering Heights are still leagues ahead of many of their contemporaries in the power metal scene. The musicianship is as excellent as ever, guitars and keys complementing each other exceedingly well and creating a lush canvas for Johansson's vocals. The vocal performance itself is also fantastic; however, the lyrics seem to have taken a step down in quality and the choruses in particular feel weak on this album. One of the best things that power metal generally has going for it are the fantastic sing-along choruses - take those away and the entire product is weakened significantly.
Best Track: The Field
Rating: 7/10

Gravity - Midnight Sonata
Gravity have shown on their first two recordings that they have the chops to play with the big boys in prog rock/metal and the good sense to show some restraint when needed. On this album they display yet another important characteristic that shows their maturation as musicians - cohesiveness. More than either of their prior releases, Midnight Sonata sounds like a single entity rather than a collection of songs. The guitar and keys are both up to the challenge of taking center stage and both really soar as they trade riffs and leads. Some great material here that will only get better as the band further refine their sound.
Best Track: Nightmare Sonata
Rating: 7/10

Ares Kingdom - Incendiary
This is the second album from the death/thrash outfit and shows some signs of a sophomore slump. The slump is certainly not in the execution of the guitar work as the tone, riffs and solos are as excellent as the debut. My only complaint in that department might be that they are slightly less focused than on the debut, though that certainly is more the fault of the songwriting itself rather than the actual guitarwork. Not much here that we didn't hear in the 80's/90's from bands like Possessed and those that followed in their footsteps - but that doesn't take away from the fact that this album is really fun and will certainly start your head banging.
Best Track: Gathering the Eagles
Rating: 7/10

Ludicra - The Tenant
Melodic and melancholy, Ludicra have managed to establish their own unique black metal aesthetic without resorting to outrageous gimmicks. The lead work on this album is wonderful and the sense of loneliness and abandonment are quite strong. A bit less consistent than the albums that came before, The Tenant hits its low point in the center of the album, but the songs coming before and after "The Undercaste" are easily strong enough to cover for this weak point. While I would rate their other albums a bit higher, this really does nothing to tarnish their track record.
Best Track: Truth Won't Set You Free
Rating: 7/10

Alter Bridge - III
When it comes to "radio rock" these days it seems that Alter Bridge and Shinedown are pretty much alone in their competition for the top spot. After The Sound of Madness, it looked like Shinedown had taken a convincing lead, but Alter Bridge apparently isn't going down without a fight. Just as good if not a touch better than Blackbird, III's only offense is that at over an hour it can get a bit same-y. Fortunately, that just means that it is consistently above average. You'd probably do best taking these mid-paced rockers in small doses, but they really are very good. Can Scott Stapp be gone for good now, Mark? Please?
Best Track: Isolation
Rating: 7/10

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