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–Nexus: The Taint (Agoge Records, 2017)

•March 21, 2018 • Leave a Comment

–Nexus: The Taint (Agoge Records, 2017)

The Italian Peninsula is serving plenty of delicious, musical soul food these days. Long known internationally for its epic symphonic power metal output (Rhapsody, Labyrinth, et. al), the current Italian metal underground offers far more than just the sacharine, Pixie Stix-loving, bombastic speed freaks. After all, it’s not about the sub-genre, it’s about the tunes — metal dudes and dudettes.

Case in point: Nexus, a talented original heavy-rock quintet hailing from L’Aquila, Italy. Anchored by lead vocalist, guitarist, and head songwriter Vlad Voicu, Nexus cooks up a delectable metallic pasta spiced with alternative, gothic rock, industrial, electronica, doom, and good old-fashioned crunchy heavy metal. The strong prominence of eerie and melodic synthesizer lines (courtesy of keyboardist Lorenzo “Il Diverso” Mastracci) transforms Nexus into a fun and unique metal/horror-movie soundtrack-like band.

Quickly: a word about the album title, The Taint. Now, I’m sure a language barrier is coming into play here; one should always recognize the inherent difficulty of singing in a non-native tongue and commend an artist’s efforts to do so. That said, the definition of that word as a noun in English is decidedly awkward, to say the least. To quote the great and immortal Indigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

Anyhow, the crux of the Nexus sound revolves around mid-tempo pacing, and Voicu’s crunchy, straightforward guitar riffs and clean, moderately-nasally vocals. But let us not diminish the importance of Mastracci’s innovative and atmospheric keyboard parts. His simple, minor melodies and techno-influenced synth tones help to elevate Nexus’ tunes to the level of quirky — and just a skosh creepy — horror rock. Bassist Tony Di Marzio, meanwhile, ably complements Mastracci’s beautifully-bloated (aka phat) synthesizer basslines.

As for the songs themselves, it’s very hard for anything on this album to top opening track, “Solitude.” This catchy gem opens with a pulsating synth bass and a Halloween-esque piano melody; it then allows its simple-yet-effective main riff and vocal hooks to ensnare the listener. That said, “Cancer,” with its poppy chorus, meaty guitar groove, and 8-bit sounding synth theme, comes really darn close. Mastracci’s melodic and ethereal synth lines take center stage on yet another catchy rocker, “Funeral Pyre.”

Nexus try a slightly different tack on the quasi-ballad, “Stillborn.” Here Voicu’s plaintive lead guitar melodies couple nicely with Mastracci’s ethereal and bouyant keyboard masterwork. “Scrying Mirror” features an industrial/dance hall sort of vibe and serves as a slight change of pace. For if there is an over-arching constructive criticism one could give ﹰNexus, it is this — adding more variation in the tempos, key signatures, and arrangements may make their future albums more engaging and enjoyable as a whole for the average hard rock/metal fan.

Regardless, Nexus have concocted an original and delicious musical recipe. Bon appetit. Visit Nexus on Facebook or on Youtube. –Jonathan Kollnot

–Tracklisting: 1.) Solitude 2.) Cancer 3.) Funeral Pyre 4.) Crimson Wine 5.) Stillborn 6.) N.B.N. 7.) Scrying Mirror 8.) To Close Your Eyes 9.) To Silence…Demons

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–Galactic Cowboys: Long Way Back to the Moon (Music Theories Recordings, 2017)

•February 20, 2018 • Leave a Comment

–GALACTIC COWBOYS: Long Way Back to the Moon (Music Theories Recordings, 2017)

No honest hard rock or metal fan could ever claim the 1990s were a barrel of laughs. From the dismal malaise of the grunge/alternative rock scene that ruled the musical landscape, to metal’s depressingly underground, bordering-on-invisibility status – the U.S. metal scene wasn’t exactly throwing victory parties during the Clinton years. But one merry little band of Mars Ranchers who played one mean “attempted clarinet” apparently didn’t get the downer memo.

Yes, Houston’s inimitable Galactic Cowboys actually thrived on being contrarian – that is unique, optimistic, and, gasp…fun – during metal’s darkest age. The stylistically schizophrenic quartet shamelessly combined thrash, glam, groove metal, bluesy jams, Mariachi(!), and superb vocal harmonies into one enigmatic platter. What kind of band were the Galactic Cowboys, you ask? They were the kind of band that would wreck the most hardcore thrashers’ necks before lulling them into a plate of serene spaghetti with their Beatles-esque harmonies. Their lyrics celebrated everything from individuality and crop circles to serial killers, romantic destiny, and long-lost high-school crushes. In short, they were the Galactic Cowboys, dude.

First off, it is high time to stop referring to this band in the past tense. After 17 years away from their proverbial Ranch on Mars, the Galactic Cowboys are back in the (also proverbial) saddle with Long Way Back to the Moon (released November 2017). GC’s original lineup – consisting of lead vocalist Ben Huggins, drummer Alan Doss, bassist Monty Colvin, and guitarist Dane Sonnier; needless to reiterate, every member also sings – have created an exciting comeback record for 21st Century metalheads.

The vast majority of Long Way Back to the Moon’s 11 regular tracks should please fans of their classic first three albums. While nothing here is as brilliantly schizoid as “I’m Not Amused,” or as sublime and epic as “Someone for Everyone” or “Where Are You Now?,” the core GC elements of thrashing, grooving, and harmonizing still dominate the space waves.

As for highlights, one need not look further than hyper-harmonious opening number, “In the Clouds.” One of GC’s oldest songs, dating back to 1989, “In the Clouds” lulls the listener into a heavy hypnosis before bashing him/her with a patented GC thrash riff-arama. Driving single “Internal Masquerade” features chiming lead-guitar harmonics and a crunchy main riff, which segues into The GC Beatles harmonizing the tumultuous likes of “Internal masquerade/eternal disarray/it’s eating up my heart today.”

Colvin’s thick bass groove and Sonnier’s chiming arpeggios anchor the brilliantly poppy “Next Joke.” This time around, the sardonic chorus scoffs at the American dream’s unrealistic promises: “You can go very far when you reach for the stars/ you can have anything you want (Next joke!).” A post-apocalyptic romance tale, “Zombies” is simultaneously one of Long Way’s… most brutal and catchy tracks. The quasi-ballad “Amisarewas,” though, is the album’s crème de la crème; this moody, melodious, and harmonious dream of a tune represents the absolute best of GC’s unique song craftsmanship.

“Drama” finds GC again successfully exploring their Def Leppard-esque pop-metal side. “Agenda,” by contrast, is a fairly standard but effective metallic cruncher. As stated earlier, Long Way… does lack the extreme emotional ebbs and flows of the best of their previous work; unfortunately, the second half of the album tends to lag a bit in terms of intensity and songwriting quality. That said, the closing pseudo-balladry of the title track concludes the album in a satisfactorily balanced manner. Besides, who could complain about the two zany and snarky bonus tracks?

Yes, plenty of darkness abounds in 2018. That won’t stop the Galactic Cowboys from throwing the wildest, quirkiest heavy-rockingest party. Welcome back, boys. — Jonathan Kollnot

–Tracklisting: 1.) In the Clouds 2.) Internal Masquerade 3.) Blood in My Eyes 4.) Next Joke 5.) Zombies 6.) Drama 7.) Amisarewas 8.) Hate Me 9.) Losing Ourselves 10.) Agenda 11.) Long Way Back to the Moon – (Bonus Tracks) 12.) Believing the Hype 13.) Say Goodbye to Utopia

–HELLOWEEN: The Time of the Oath (Retro Review, 1996)

•February 7, 2018 • Leave a Comment

(This review was originally published in Kollnot Music #3, Summer 1996. Look for new reviews of classic albums, contemporary new releases, and West Michigan local music content in the coming weeks and months of 2018).

–HELLOWEEN: The Time of the Oath (Castle Records, 1996)

****/5

“We Burn” gets the new Helloween disc off to a fast and glorious start, and the German power metal lords don’t let up from there. Not only is this Helloween’s heaviest effort in years, and an immense improvement over ’94s mediocre Master of the Rings, but it marks the welcome return of Helloween’s famous dual guitar interplay and great songwriting.

Unlike MOTR, The Time of the Oath doesn’t suffer from average songwriting, lethargic tempos, and inane lyrics. These new songs feature straight-ahead speed reminscent of the Keeper years, as well as the excellent neo-classical lead guitarwork of Michael Weikath and Roland Grapow. While their last few albums lacked the breathless twin-guitar leads Helloween is famous for, here they are packed into the majority of the songs. “Steel Tormentor” and “Before the War” feature two of the catchiest choruses in recent memory, and yet the songs still manage to run at a brisk pace.

Other, slower songs like “Wake Up the Mountain” and “A Million to One,” manage to mesmerize the listener with their catchy riffs and vibrant dynamic contrasts. “Mission Motherland” and the epic title track demonstrate that ‘Ween haven’t lost their ability to write elaborate, fantasy-based songs.

TOTO is the second album for Helloween’s third vocalist, Andi Deris, and he basically succeeds at fueling these songs with the feeling and emotion that great power metal requires. However, Deris‘ Paul Di’anno-esquerasp is an acquired taste, and a clearer voice may be better suited for a band the caliber of Helloween. Also, when will they learn to STOP balladeering? The two ballads here, “Forever and One (Neverland)” and “If I Knew ” are cheesy, pretentious, and totally inappropriate for the album.–Jonathan Kollnot

–The Holy Warheads: Gravity (Honyock Records, 2017) Local West Michigan Artist Spotlight

•January 10, 2018 • Leave a Comment

–The Holy Warheads: Gravity, Honyock Records, 2017 (Local West Michigan Artist Spotlight)

The Holy Warheads are lighting up the city. Rest assured, this cliché is no mere hyperbole stemming from the sheer awesomeness of their name. Their live shows, for instance, are always destructive, incendiary, nuclear even. Sonically, this Grand Rapids-based quartet transcends narrow sub-genre restrictions with their melodic and original brand of hard rock. But, yes, their band name is still really cool.

 Fronted by the prolific Joe Henry — also guitarist with zany hardcore-punk rockers The Westside Rebellion, as well as his inimitable singer/songwriter solo act American Zombie Inquisition — The Holy Warheads deftly tread that fine line between punk rock, classic hard rock, and grunge. Yes, I said “grunge,” the once ubiquitous sub-genre that reached its melancholy zenith over 20 years ago. Indeed, one can hear as many references to SoundgardenPearl Jam, and Temple of the Dog as the Sex PistolsAC/DC, or Social Distortion.

On Gravity, The Holy Warheads’ new mini album, the quartet has melded all these disparate influences into five catchy, mid-paced, and deep-grooving tunes. Henry’s unique, deep-register voice is the clear focal point of their music. His strong vibrato and pristine tone brings the stirring vocal melodies to life. Bassist Kevin Keefer (also of G.R. instrumental metal gods Knives Are Quiet) provides the driving bass foundation; the sheer power of his filthy, picked bass tone cannot be overstated. Meanwhile, guitarist Ivan Hannah’s minor-key, octave-based riffs, and wah wah-drenched leads (ala Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready) invoke the aforementioned grunge overtones. Drummer Brent Riva muscles through this holy war with power and groove.

If there’s an obvious standout on Gravity, it is the stunning title track. A favorite of their live shows, the slow-and-deliberate “Gravity” opens with a punchy, accented bass riff, followed closely by hooky riffs from Hannah. By the time Henry bellows out the chorus, good luck retrieving this ear worm from your brain. Opening cut “Blood” is a brisk track that features Keefer’s aggressive picking and yet more infectious vocal melodies. “Salt,” another clear-cut highlight, showcases Keefer’s slowly-galloping bass line and simple-yet-melodic guitar work beneath Henry’s serpentine, emotive vocal lines.

In truth, there is nary a weak moment on Gravity. From the emotional, often socially-conscious lyrics, to the catchy choruses, to the moody musical textures — these Warheads are Holy indeed. Also, don’t forget to give them a shoutout on Facebook and a listen over on Bandcamp, or at a West Michigan rock club.–Jonathan Kollnot

–Tracklisting: 1.) Blood 2.) Salt 3.) Gallows 4.) Monsters 5.) Gravity

–Game Zero: Rise (Agoge Records, 2015/16)

•December 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

–Game Zero: Rise (Agoge Records, 2015/16)

Sometimes – once in a blue moon — a classic song will just appear out of nowhere. The timeless, irresistible riffs and melodies seemingly rise from the ether straight into one’s head and heart. Then, perhaps five-to-ten years down the road, the now ubiquitous song will be heard in grocery store aisles and movie theater restrooms everywhere. This song is so incredibly good that no one could possibly grow sick of it. 

The craft of songwriting is rarely this simple, of course. Just don’t tell that to Italian hard rock band Game Zero regarding their fantastic single, “The City With No Ends.” This track is extremely well-crafted and memorable, it is no surprise that it was featured as the showcase song in the 2016 Italian animated film, East End. “The City With No Ends” is indeed a special tune; from its biting main riff, punk/ska-like verses, incredibly catchy chorus melodies and swirling harmonies, and concise-yet-tasty guitar solo. Yes, this song is that good – hyperbole be damned. 

That is not to imply, however, that Game Zero is merely a one-hit wonder or anything of the sort. Many other tracks on their debut album, Rise, provide sing-able and headbanging moments for fans of modern hard rock and metal. The band, who hail from Rome, play various styles and consistently skirt the thin lines between post-rock, modern mainstream metal such as Avenged Sevenfold and Volbeat, and groove-oriented nü metal ala Disturbed or Godsmack. This diversity always sounds natural within the context of a song, rather than schizophrenic or gimmicky. That seamless stylistic blend makes Rise a consistently enjoyable listen – though “The City With No Ends” remains the definitive standout. 

Game Zero – Mark Wright, rhythm guitar/vocals; Alexincubus, lead guitar vocals; Domino, bass; and Dave J., drums – indeed get off to a promising start on Rise. Generally speaking, this album should mostly appeal to fans of a myriad of hard rock and metal styles, as opposed to sub-genre elitists. Game Zero sound comfortable driving in the mid-tempo lane, as in the Volbeat/Stone Sour-esque “It’s Over” and “Don’t Follow Me.” They accelerate the pace somewhat on “Time Is Broken,” which features a syncopated main riff, palm-muted guitar rhythms, and a catchy vocal melody in the chorus. “Lions and Lambs,” with its aggressive main riff and choice leads, is another clear highlight. On “Look At You,” Game Zero prove fully capable of going full-on speed metal/pop-punk with success. 

This band is at their best when they utilize all the musical dynamics at their disposal (“Crimson Wine,” “Close Your Eyes, “The City With No Ends”). While Rise doesn’t feel staid or formulaic, Game Zero might consider including more variation in their song structures and tempos to increase excitement. Also, Wright’s vocals are solid throughout, but his nasally tone may prove an acquired taste. That said, it is refreshing to hear a new modern metal act utilize solely clean singing rather than the ubiquitous and obnoxious screaming-and-yelling “heavy vocals” favored by so many young acts today. 

Overall, Italy’s Game Zero deliver a promising debut with Rise and a Song of the Year candidate in “The City With No Ends.” Visit Game Zero online here or on Facebook. – Jonathan Kollnot 

 

–Slumlord Radio: Too Pretty for Tijuana, 2015, Honeyock/Silver Maple Kill Records (Local West Michigan Spotlight)

•December 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment

–Slumlord Radio: Too Pretty for Tijuana, 2015, Honeyock/Silver Maple Kill Records  (Local West Michigan Spotlight)

Nothing is ever new under the sun, right? At least, that’s how the pithy old adage goes; generally speaking, though, it rings true in this digital-media age of musical oversaturation. With thousands and thousands of bands and artists out there to be viewed, streamed, and downloaded, listener fatigue is understandable and common. That mythical combination of originality and old-school cred, however, is not so commonly found in today’s heavy rock scene.

That’s what’s makes Slumlord Radio such a joyful revelation. The high-energy Grand Rapids-based band (“via Stockholm Sweden”–Tommy Erickson’s onstage opening banter) have been playing their unique brand of hard rock since 2010. They’ve made a name for themselves locally and regionally with their kinetic, humorous, and exorbitantly fun live shows. With Slumlord Radio, one hears an uncanny conglomerate of hardcore punk, stoner doom, sludge, classic metal, and yes, even some power pop. Slumlord’s sundry stylistic concoction works extremely well, though, because the songs are well-crafted, memorable, and catchy as all get-out.

Anchored by singer/guitarist Tommy “Capt. Hollywood” Erickson, Slumlord Radio is as prolific in the studio as they are active on the stage. They already have several releases under their belts, including three albums of new material. Their latest full-length, 2015’s Too Pretty for Tijuana, sounds like Metallica and Motörhead married Black Sabbath and gave birth to the Ramones and Iggy Pop. Erickson delivers the crunchy sonic wall of guitar riffs throughout, while drummer Matt “Rattlesnake” Claucherty and bassist Mike “El Ace” Todd maintain the jammable — yet often danceable — grooves.

Take the video single, “Bullwhip,” a raucous mid-tempo groover that features a crunchy riffs and an infectious chorus: “If you started a cult, I’d be the first to join.” Indeed. Next up, “Debonair Dolomite” grinds along in a fuzzed-out, slow shuffle. Tony Iommi and Crazy Horse-era Neil Young would be proud. Erickson’s raspy-yet-tuneful vocals, coupled with some perfect-for-SNL cowbell, complement the muscular riffs. The headbanging “Southpaw” opens with some brooding clean arpeggios before unrolling a deliberate, stomping groove that is sure to please fans of Sabbath and Black Label Society. 

Other highlights include the slowly galloping quasi-title track, “Tycoon,”  (“You’re too pretty for Tijuana!”), the metallic stoner doom of “Choke 66,” and the  harmonized guitar workouts on prime display on “Fort Knox (2015). Overall, the inherently catchy riffs and vocal melodies hold Slumlord Radio’s disparate musical elements together like Krazy Glue. My only complaint is the whole thing ends a bit too quickly for Tijuana.

Checkout their new 2017 single and video, “Holy Smokes,” which is as entertaining as it is hard-rocking. Don’t miss Slumlord Radio on stage or on Bandcamp, either; by far they are the most original and fun Stockholm band that’s not from Sweden one will ever hear.–Jonathan Kollnot

–Tracklisting: 1). Intro 2.) Bullwhip 3.) Debonair Dolomite 4.) “Southpaw 5.) Intermission 6.) Tycoon 7.) Choke 66 8.) Fort Knox  (2015) 9.) Outro

Slumlord Radio (2017): Tommy “Capt. Hollywood” Erickson, Vocals/Guitar; Matt Claucherty, Drums; Mike “Ace” Todd, Bass; “Dangerous” David Flynn, Guitar.

–GALACTIC COWBOYS: Space In Your Face (1993)

•November 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

–GALACTIC COWBOYS: Space In Your Face  (1993) 

The 1990s was a challenging time for heavy metal. For those of us old enough to remember those dark ages of musical misery, that is one major understatement. Hard rocking MTV superstars of the ’80s were breaking up and being dropped from labels right and left amid the alternative rock and grunge onslaught. Beloved arena-packing icons such as Iron MaidenJudas Priest, and Dio were now relegated to touring small clubs and theaters in the U.S.; we fans, meanwhile, were reduced to digging for mere scraps in the suddenly nonexistent metal sections of record stores. Then, about five years later, the explosion of the “nu metal” movement/plague sounded to me like the final death knell for decent musicality in general. No, I spell my delicious popCorn with a freaking “C”– thank you very much. 

Yet, arising from the ashes of this musical holocaust, a few phoenixes soared high above the desolation and laughed. Houston’s Galactic Cowboys were one such act, a truly unique band that took their eternal quest for creativity and experimentation almost as seriously as their embrace of bizarre silliness. From the moment I first watched the video for “I’m Not Amused,” their first single, on Headbangers Ball, I sat there bemused — and, also, a bit amused. Here stood these four zany longhairs in the desert playing this insane smorgasbord of a metal tune. This song alternated between acoustic Mariachi strumming, bludgeoning thrash riffs, bluesy harmonica solos, full-on speed metal, and gorgeous vocal harmonies that would have made The Beatles jealous. But rather than sounding disjointed or merely schizophrenic, “I’m Not Amused” was original and captivating. My GC fandom was launched. 

Now, choosing a specific Galactic Cowboys album to showcase is no simple decision. Their self-titled 1991 debut is no slouch whatsoever, featuring such inimitable crossover favorites as “My School,” “Someone for Everyone,” and of course, “I’m Not Amused.” Their third record, 1996’s Machine Fish, finds the GC boys branching out into some more modern soundscapes. It took some getting used to, but it’s a grower. But on Space In Your Face, they sound the most comfortable in their own skins. The GC sound is more focused and crystallized without losing one iota of their unique charms. Let’s dig into Space

On Space In Your Face, the Galactic Cowboys — lead vocalist Ben Huggins, bassist Monty Colvin, guitarist Dane Sonnier, and drummer/”attempted keyboardist” Alan Doss — burn all their solid rocket fuel on intense and compelling songs. Sonnier’s guitar riffs juxtapose a bluesy swagger with aggressive thrash rhythms, while Huggins’ acoustic parts provide the dynamic counterpoint. Colvin, who’s also GC’s principal songwriter, plays lively, picked bass lines with a tone that is downright filthy. 

Huggins’ lead vocals are pleasant and warm in a glam-metal sort of way; think of some RattW.A.S.P., and perhaps Don Dokken thrown into a blender. Doss, for his part, delivers a ferocious hardcore punk intensity from the drum stool. This diverse package is enveloped by a giant bow of catchy pop-rock choruses and gorgeous vocal harmonies. 

Opening like a juggernaut, the brief introductory title track, with its swirling interplay of intricate thrash rhythms and jarring meter changes, raises the listener’s heart rate to dangerous levels. This segues into the driving first single, “You Make Me Smile,” an appropriately catchy and schizo sister track to “I’m Not Amused.” Next up, “I Do What I Do” is a dynamic diamond; its contrasts between the cleanly-arpeggiated verses, sublime chorus harmonies, and exhilarating Metallica-esque excursions are some of GC’s finest moments. “Circles In the Fields” is a straight-ahead thrashing ode to crop circles, and the band spares no spit nor venom in the purely belligerent rocker, “If I Were a Killer.” 

Some of Space’s most melodic moments are also its most endearing. Take, for instance, “Blind,” a lovely, mid-tempo quasi-ballad that never loses its metallic crunch. “No Problems” is a beautiful and harmonious tribute to personal perseverance and gratitude. 

On “Where Are You Now?,” the album’s crunchy, almost sludgy closer, Huggins nostalgically ponders the fate of old high-school crushes. As the band stomps through a looping culminating riff, the listener hears Colvin cold calling a few ex-female classmates. Sylvia, the first young woman he calls, is pleasant and polite, if ultimately clueless as to who Monty Colvin from High School is. “But you’re not a country band?” He’s much less lucky with his second caller, however: “Look! I don’t know who you are, and I don’t appreciate this. So don’t call back!” Ouch. 

But there’s a silver lining to this tragic tale. The Galactic Cowboys have reformed after nearly 20 years apart. Expect their brand new album, Long Way Back to the Moon, out Friday, November 17th. Now that really makes me smile — when it’s said and done. –Jonathan Kollnot 

–Tracklisting: 1.) Space In Your Face 2.) You Make Me Smile 3.) I Do What I Do 4.) Circles In the Fields 5.) If I Were a Killer 6.) Blind 7.) No Problems 8.) About Mrs. Leslie 9.) Where Are You Now?

 
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