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  • Black Clouds and Silver Linings -- Bonus Disc

    Set 2 2009, 14:59

    Say what you want about Dream Theater. Actually , hold that off. In the songwriting department, say what you want about the other artists for now. When Black Clouds & Silver Linings came out, it seems we heard the same thing from each party (fans praised everything about it, nonfans griped about everything about it); however, the disc came with a series of six covers (or do you want to count it as eight?), which were bound to offend die-hards. I made an off-handed remark earlier that covering "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2" was something of a sin -- I'd like to retract that before someome decapitates me.

    That said, the band covered five tracks and a medley here. You have Stargazer, Take Your Fingers From My Hair, the aforementioned Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Odyssey, and To Tame a Land, standing alongside the mid-Sheer Heart Attack medley of Tenement Funster, Flick of the Wrist, and Lily of the Valley. Believe it or not, fans and non-fans, they're actually all pretty solid.

    Let's start off making it seem like we're going to go in order, then, shall we? Yeah, that sounds logical. We start with the Rainbow cover (Stargazer). By now, most people have heard the original, off of Rising; it's a phenomenal performance in its original version, and surely Dream Theater can't top it, can they?! Well, I wouldn't say they top it, but they do equal it. That, in and of itself, is a feat, but there is help in terms of making this possible; Dream Theater are, of course, a band that is used to tossing us giant songs, and the original "Stargazer" was among the mightiest of giants, even at its fairly short length (for an epic, I mean). The performance is incredible, and Jordan Rudess -- constantly someone that I have to scratch my head at because of the sounds he gives us from his synth -- selects fairly tasteful tones, resulting in something that sounds like... Uriah Heep organs, up until the end section.

    The problem is, the basicmost form of this statement -- "Sounds good and is well-performed" -- can be repeated throughout this review for everything. Everything sounds good and is well-performed. Not that the band ever really performs badly in studio, sometimes they just have really ugly sounds. Rudess is far from a bad musician, but sometimes you just have to gripe about the tones. Fortunately, he dodges anything too abominable throughout and sticks to skillful playing. The drums sometimes sound a spot 'flat' in some places, not being so punchy, which reminds me, oddly, of Take Cover's mastering. I found myself enjoying James LaBrie's vocals on this disc more than on the actual album, for some reason.

    In any case, I'd never heard the originals of either the Dixie Dregs (Odyssey) or the Zebra (Take Your Fingers From My Hair) covers, but they're both good performances, which earns them their requisite points. I'm familiar with Steve Morse (the Dregs' founding guitarist)'s work through Deep Purple, and if indeed that lives up to the contend of "Odyssey," then this is definitely a fine cover; hell, even if the Dregs work is better than e.g. Purpendicular's material...

    So, let's get to the other three, containing the ones that nonfans of DT might get more cheesed off about. First and foremost we have the one that I was thoroughly ready to shit bricks on, the cover of King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Pt. 2. Fortunately, it is performed well, and the guitar tone even sounds like it was re-tuned from the original album. I must confess to having one tiny complaint about this, though, and that is that the guitar tone doesn't really sound right when it's by itself. The parts where the guitar is unaccompanied make me actually want to turn the track off sometimes, but I know they're short enough that I don't. The arrangement is pretty faithful and, of course, it's well-performed, and being an instrumental, it's impossible to find a way to complain about James LaBrie's voice, unless you're one of the rare people (note that this isn't a piss-take at him, it's just what I've observed as truth) who really can't get enough of his voice.

    Next up, we have the Queen medley cover, Tenement Funster/Flick Of The Wrist/Lily Of The Valley. I won't say much about the change in tone, except that it actually works. I was apprehensive about the (Portnoy-provided) growling, but it works very well, actually, considering the rest of the song's drop in tone. Whoever does the higher backing vocals here should really be commended, actually, because they sound like something from an actual Queen record, or at least close.

    Last but not least, we have an Iron Maiden cover, To Tame A Land. A large portion of the song is devoted to John (Petrucci)'s guitar solo, which means that it can't be too bad by default, pretty much, and indeed, it comes off well. I have but one complaint to voice, though; wasn't this cover already released? I think it would be nice to see something that they hadn't covered yet, something maybe more obscure. Surely they know a couple of other bands that are rather unknown, beyond just Zebra, right?

    Of course, it's not completely necessary, but I already have Maiden Heaven (I think that's where I found the "To Tame a Land" cover before), and I do like to get as much new stuff for my money as I can. Still, that's four hits and two walks ("Larks' Tongues" loses a few points because some of the sound is a little smelly, and "To Tame a Land" gets a little taken off the edges because of the I-think-I-have-this-already factor), and with decent sound and nothing to complain about in the performances, I don't think it's unfair of me to rate this an 8.5/10 -- not perfect but far from bad. Wouldn't mind having things like this for other future DT albums.
  • Into the Labyrinth -- A bit more of a review.

    Feb 3 2009, 16:14

    Apparently, I broke some unwritten law by posting a partial review of an album I hadn't listened to all of, while making note of the fact that it was partial. Whoops! Next time I'll shut the fuck up, since I'm only doing what a lot of others seem to do... either listening to something only half-way or only focusing on a few traits. At least, that's judging by some of the tripe I've read that passes for 'record reviews.' If you think I'm exaggerating and just pissing and moaning because I like Calling All Stations and every record reviewer ever explains that it's a piece of shit, please count up how many of the reviews of The Police's Zenyatta Mondatta album neglect the distinct feeling of incompleteness which permeates the album, which is the result of the band rushing to get it finished at 4AM riiiight before their next tour, and how many of them praise Don't Stand So Close to Me as, like, one of the greatest songs ever, when it's far from it and not even the best on the album.

    Fuck it anyway. That said, I'd previously called Biff Byford's voice ugly, which is probably an incorrect statement. Okay, it's not a thing of beauty, either, but this is heavy metal, and I expect some ugliness. Usually, the vocals are a good place for this. So, I've grown to appreciate it.

    Into the Labyrinth definitely delivers in terms of heavy metal thunder (yes, okay, I pulled a pun from a previous song title, like almost every other reviewer ever); songs like Valley of the Kings and Battalions of Steel rock hard and come at you fast, while there are slower numbers included, like Slow Lane Blues (with a title such at that, were you expecting thrash-speed?), which is great, because, for as much as I love the two aforementioned fast tracks, if the album consisted of those alone, I'd get pretty bored.

    Well, alright, that's the first half of the twelve all-new songs on the album. For the nostalgics in the audience, there's an acoustic bottleneck version of Coming Home at the end which, after all the electric fervor of the album, seems distinctly out of place and a little boring, but overall it's utterly harmless in the end. The harder-rocking numbers (like Hellcat) have less of an epic feel than Battalions of Steel or Valley of the Kings, but are still very enjoyable. Your mileage may vary, but I prefer the like the epic feel of these tracks!

    So, really, what's the verdict? Overall, this is a very strong album, but with a few slow moments (I'm not a big fan of Premonition in D Minor/Voice, nor the re-recording of Coming Home, nor Crime of Passion), but Saxon are still very good for having been around for over thirty years. If you like epic-sounding heavy metal, you'll appreciate the album, but if not, the word 'bloated' will surely be uttered somewhere when you try to explain it. Others will take issue with the lyrics, stating that these subjects (or similar subjects) are ones that have shown up many a time before in heavy metal. So, if songs about driving too fast, Egypt, Sweeney Todd, and similar subject matter bore you by default, you might not want to grab this one, but, if that's not an issue, go right ahead and grab it, as it rocks pretty damned hard!

    (A quick note, now that I thought about it... last I checked, the songs aren't linked to the album on last.fm, so no song links right now, not unless that changes!)
  • Saxon's new album... my opinions so far.

    Gen 12 2009, 18:14

    So, Saxon's new album, Into the Labyrinth came out recently. I've yet to listen to the whole thing, but what I've heard so far is pretty good. (Mind, this is my first Saxon album...) I haven't got much to say about it, other than this...

    The lead singer's voice, whose name I can't remember worth fuck, has a really ugly voice. Almost as ugly as Lemmy's, but Lemmy still has him beat. Regardless of this, the music is no less listenable, and probably a lot better as a result. I mean, come on, they've got a song about Sweeney Todd on there. (Demon Sweeney Todd, for those who didn't know...) (As a result, I think my mother might like this a little, since she's into heavy metal and really dug the film of Sweeney Todd. But, that's just a stupid, silly little side-note.) Valley of the Kings sounds like a lot of other songs I can't name all of off-hand, but maybe it's that sort of warm familiarity which makes me really like it. In fact, most of it that I've listened to sounds immediately like a lot of other things I'm familiar with.

    Remind me to listen to the rest later and put in a proper review.