Arc of Space: The Remarkable Solo Career of Bruce Dickinson (Part One)

To say that Bruce Dickinson’s solo career is the greatest of any vocalist in metal history is a bold claim, because you’re going right up against titans like Dio and Ozzy. The latter is a stretch, he’s made more mediocre to bad albums than good to great ones. Dio’s solo work however was consistent throughout his career, and legendary, iconic even, in its greatest moments. I will be making a case for Dickinson however, not so much based on his vast array of masterful songs and often fully realized albums — of which he has many, but on the incredible diversity found within his solo discography, his willingness to explore and expand into new sounds, and his lack of fear in experimenting in public. His discography ranges from bouncy, cheery hard rock to emotionally charged balladry; to proggy alternative-metal explorations; and onto dark, menacing metal records that shook with such vitality and earth-shaking heaviness that they made Iron Maiden’s 90s era albums seem tame in comparison.

I was late to the party in regards to Dickinson’s solo career, having only begun my own explorations of it after he had reunited with Maiden on 2000’s Brave New World. It was just one of those inexplicable actions of being a teenager, but at the time I held an innate prejudice towards solo material of any artist in any genre — my belief being that if the music wasn’t good enough for whatever band an artist was associated with, then it was probably not worth hearing. It was all justified in my mind, you see Holy Diver wasn’t a Dio solo album, it was the debut album of Dio, the band. What can you do about a mindset that attributes so much to one Vivian Campbell?! In retrospect I can see that it might’ve been a side-effect of that teenage need to identify oneself according to groups or brands — it was “(insert band name here) or GTFO”. As further testament to just how seriously I internalized this logic, I refused to listen to Dave Mustaine’s MD 45 until years and years later.

The catalyst for breaking free from such a close-minded view was my stumbling onto a Dickinson gem called “Tears of a Dragon”. It was a discussion on the Megadeth.com forums that prompted me to find this song, when a random post by some forgotten user name insisted that the song had Dickinson’s greatest vocal performance ever, above any Maiden songs. I searched around for it, found its music video streaming in Real Player (yes that existed, it wasn’t a dream), waited for it to buffer, and for the next few minutes I was mesmerized. I don’t need to convince anyone here do I? “Tears of a Dragon” was a watershed for Dickinson as a songwriter. It was a brooding, melancholic, wistful ballad that served as his confessional about his rapidly accumulating feelings about the possibility of leaving Iron Maiden. Its emotional resonance relied entirely on Dickinson’s lyrics and his approach to them. Never before had the Air Raid Siren sounded so pensive, hesitant, and vulnerable — nor sung words that lacked any semblance of blood and thunder bravado.

From there I plunged in head long, buying up his catalog in rapid succession, beginning with his just then released 2001 Best Of collection. It was both an imperfect and perfect starting place in that with the benefit of hindsight I can see how much its tracklisting was woefully inadequate, however it did work as a microcosm in illuminating just how wildly varied and diverse his catalog was. I listened to that collection to death, particularly its bonus disc of assorted rarities which enthralled me to no end due to its even more bewildering array of musicality. After a few months I had all of his solo albums, and devoured them, listening and re-listening and listening again. I scoured the internet for old interviews of Dickinson’s from every album release era, and wound up with a pretty decent collection of them, their collective contents threading together an undertold story.

What that story illuminated about Dickinson’s solo career is the sheer risk he wagered in reaching for it in an era of turbulent pop-cultural change; the emotional turmoil that ensued for him privately, and the tenuous nature of events that led him to soldier on instead of quitting music as a career altogether — the possibility of which was closer than anyone suspected. But lets start at the beginning, with the first two albums in his solo discography that were wildly different from one another, and exemplified the wild creative extremes he’d come to explore in many directions over the course of the 90s and beyond.


Tattooed Millionaire (1990, Columbia Records)

Dickinson’s solo career began in an inconspicuously innocent manner, as he himself describes in the liner notes to his solo Best Of collection as “a very enjoyable accident”. An invitation by his publishing company (Zomba Music) to contribute a song to a film soundtrack (1989’s cinematic masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) led to Dickinson getting in touch with an old friend, an out of work guitarist named Janick Gers formerly of Ian Gillan’s solo band. The ensuing song was “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter”, a clunky yet endearing tongue-in-cheek howler that impressed Steve Harris enough that it was yanked off the shelves so Maiden could co-opt it for their 1990 No Prayer for the Dying album.

Long before the song received its unlikely UK number one hit status in early 1991 however, it had generated enough behind the scenes interest from Zomba and Sony/Columbia records to lead to another invitation for Dickinson, this time to record an entire album. Zomba had then just recently acquired a recording studio, Battery Studios (oddly enough, it was the newly christened half of the legendary Morgan Studios, where just about every major UK rock album in the 70s was recorded), and they needed someone to come in and give their new toy a spin. Dickinson received the studio time essentially on their dime, all while assuring them he had enough songs already in the can to complete a full length album. He didn’t.

Holed up in the front room of Gers airport-adjacent Hounslow home, Dickinson and his new guitarist wrote the entire album in two weeks. It was a complete departure from the sophisticated complexity of Maiden’s preceding Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album in both tone and structure. Tattooed Millionaire was a wild, loose, no frills rock n’ roll album that owed more to AC/DC than anything resembling Maiden’s progressive influences. Dickinson would comment, “We took all our favorite rock and roll cliches, bundled them all together, and recorded it”, a fitting summation of the album, but it was still filled with inspired performances. Featuring the aforementioned Gers as the lone guitarist, along with Andy Carr on bass, and Jagged Edge’s Fabio Del Rio on drums, Dickinson’s band was in essence a three piece in purely instrumental terms. Gers would record both rhythm and overdubbed lead parts on the album, but as heard on the Dive Dive Live! concert video this lineup was downright aggressive, raw, and dare I suggest punky when playing live.

That rawness began on some of the deep cuts on this album, on songs such as “Dive Dive Dive!” with its almost Guns N’ Roses-ish snakey riffs and Dickinson’s half raspy / half snarled vocal delivery, as well as on “Son of a Gun” and “Gypsy Road” where he dips down into roots-y Aerosmith territory. On those and other songs where this strange British take on Americanized guitar rock really works, they come across as a batch of a fun, light-hearted, feel-good rock n’ roll songs sung by a vocalist who’s far too skilled for them. That’s not a critique on Dickinson’s vocals, but I’ve always felt that Tattooed Millionaire was an unusual sounding album because of that disparity. A song as zany as “Zulu Lulu”, or “Lickin’ the Gun” for example sounds like it would work better if performed by ZZ Top or Steven Tyler, more than the man who so epically sang “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. Dickinson himself would point out in the liner notes of the album’s re-release, “Some of the tracks hold up extraordinarily well… Some of them maybe not so much… In general, I think the stuff that has some really good melodies is the stuff that holds up”.

Essential Cuts: There’s little to link this rather inauspicious debut with the drastic musical experimentation he’d come upon in his next two solo records, but the seeds for those future outings can be detected in Dickinson’s success at writing a pair of breezy, excellent hard rock singles in the title track and the poignantly autobiographical “Born In ’58”. As a song, “Tattooed Millionaire” is directed at the era’s Los Angeles rock stars and their entourage/groupie fueled lifestyles (there are rumors that its about Nikki Sixx specifically, but I’ll let you Google those). Its perhaps the album’s smartest moment, a bit of satire that perhaps Jonathan Swift himself would approve of, as Gers and Dickinson crafted a pop-metal gem in the musical vein of those very bands the song’s ire is directed towards. So well crafted is the song that even its verses are in perfectly catchy lock-step, “He got a wife / She ain’t no brain child / ex-mud queen of Miami”. When Dickinson cuts loose on the high register, layered vocal chorus, he tonally shifts the song from angry judgment to that of liberating, blissful contentment.

Where “Tattooed Millionaire” is full of brash indictment, “Born in 58” is more concerned with contemplation — in many ways this is Dickinson’s first attempt at writing something personal, well, ever. Using his grandfather as a framing reference, Dickinson’s lyrics here deal with a pointed criticism of modern society and its lack of values. It can almost be viewed as a companion piece to “Tattooed Millionaire” in its dissatisfaction with something external, but here Dickinson seems to be speaking from some internal sense of loss, “On and on, we slept till dawn / When we awoke, we hardly spoke”. Whatever the song’s true meaning, its been a criminally underrated tune, and Dickinson’s vocal performance here demands some extra attention, particularly in how effortlessly he nails the verse segue into the chorus, “And men were still around / who fought for freedom / stood their ground and died!”. That explosive vocal is my favorite part of the song, one of those classic Dickinson moments that would never exist were the song in the hands of a lesser singer.

Though I’m not featuring the song or its fantastic music video among the clips below, I would be remiss not to talk a bit about the excellent David Bowie cover of “All The Young Dudes” on the album. Actually, its a Mott the Hoople song, but Bowie wrote it, you know how these things worked in the seventies… artists were songwriters or performers or both. Dickinson had performed the song cold at a charity show at Wembley Arena, and surprised by his own success with it on stage decided that the band would tackle it for the record. Frankly its a brilliant, inspired cover, and risking blasphemy I’ll say its the definitive version of the song, even nearly twenty years removed from its written era. The key lies not just in Dickinson’s flexible yet strong vocal delivery, but in Gers far more melodic and rounded treatment of the guitar motifs throughout the song. The original has guitar figures that sound incomplete and unfinished in comparison, Gers just seems to own this song and he’s really the star of it, delivering his best individual performance on the album.

Balls to Picasso (1994, Mercury Records)

The pivotal album of Dickinson’s career not only as a solo artist, but as a member of Iron Maiden, Balls to Picasso has a long and tortured history in terms of development and what it meant in the greater scheme of things for the man himself. Where to begin discussing such things? Well, the album’s gestation itself seems a good place to start, and for that we go backwards from its 1994 release date all the way to pre-June 1992, while Dickinson was still a member of Iron Maiden and on the verge of going on the road for the Fear of the Dark World Tour. Seemingly picking up where he left off, the first iteration of the album in its rudimentary state was not much different from the feel and style of Tattooed Millionaire, reinforced by bringing aboard that album’s producer in Chris Tsangarides and this time the entirety of Jagged Edge as backing musicians (by this point they were known as Skin). Dickinson immediately felt that he was just going through the motions and not really challenging himself, an important tidbit to point out because that’s also precisely what he was beginning to feel within Maiden.

Those initial sessions were immediately broken up, and upon the advice of Maiden’s manager, the infamous Rod Smallwood, Dickinson got in touch with famed producer Keith Olsen of so many platinum/multiplatinum albums in the 70s and 80s (most notably, Olsen produced the now classic self-titled 1975 Fleetwood Mac album that introduced Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks into the lineup). The first thought was that Olsen would be able to work the same reconstructive magic he used for Whitesnake’s pair of late 80s albums that were waylaid by personnel changes and delays. The tapes were brought to Los Angeles, but it soon became obvious that simply re-edting material wasn’t a viable strategy in this case. It was decided that the tapes would be shelved and a new album created entirely from scratch, and Dickinson saw this as the perfect moment and opportunity to try something daring. He explains in the Best Of liner notes that he would begin by “taking a radical new direction, away from big-hair-metal and 80s cliches towards something dark, scary, joyful, intense, except I wasn’t quite sure how to do it”, and he adds, “This was a terrifying moment.”

It was January of 1993 by this time, and for six weeks Dickinson toiled, working on material that select chunks of would later surface as future b-sides that showcased a very “Peter Gabriel-y vibe” (Dickinson’s own description). The album was finished but Dickinson wasn’t satisfied, feeling that “deep down I know it wasn’t right and bits of it were downright embarrassing, but nevertheless it had the seeds of something good, and they were contained in a track called “Tears of a Dragon””. Those Los Angeles Olsen sessions also introduced Dickinson to a band called Tribe of Gypsies that was recording their album down the hall in the same studio. He stepped into their recording room one night to hear what they were doing and was blown away by their Latin infused take on hard rock. It was also the beginning of his long friendship and working partnership with Tribes guitarist Roy Z, the man whose presence launched the third iteration of what would become Balls to Picasso.

What Dickinson saw in the Tribe of Gypsies’ musical approach was an emphasis on a gritty rhythm section, playful percussion, with a melodic core that was simultaneously authentic and emotional (and he’s right, seriously, everyone owes it to themselves to check out the band’s excellent debut album). In the 1994 Kerrang! interview for the album’s release, Dickinson affirmed, “I wanted to use percussion and different rhythms in a way that’s never been done before… What’s been lacking in this form of music for so many years is groove. Things just became regimented into what’s now become the Maiden gallop or the AC/DC plod.” So he asked for the Tribes’ help and they agreed to be borrowed and together Roy Z and Dickinson discovered a writing partnership that resulting in an immediate outpouring of new songs. These new songs replaced everything written for the previous two failed album attempts, except for the aforementioned “Tears of a Dragon”, which Roy Z loved and managed to improve upon with a heartfelt, note perfect guitar solo.

The resulting third-times-a-charm Balls to Picasso is still a mixed bag to this day — to be praised for its uninhibited sense of ambition and its massive leap from the “AC/DC plod” rock n’ roll of Tattooed Millionaire, but with the acknowledgement that some of its ten cuts simply fell flat. Personally I suspect the lackluster production (courtesy of Olsen’s engineer Shay Baby) is at fault, because a song like “Laughing in the Hiding Bush” sounds absolutely massive when heard on the 1998 Scream For Me Brazil live album, but oddly muted and wet-ragged here. Fans and Dickinson himself agree in retrospect that the album should’ve been produced by Roy Z himself, given what he’d bring to the table in the future as a producer. That being said there are some moments where I think the songwriting itself is at fault, such as on back to back album openers “Cyclops” and “Hell No”, songs that seemed to either be in need of editing or some extra tempo based punch in their verse sections.

As a result, the album is ascending in quality, starting off sluggishly only to get increasingly better and better as it goes along, culminating in the glorious “Tears…” finale. But “1000 points of Light” has a sharp chorus that sounds somewhat similar to early 90s Queensryche (if only the verses weren’t so ho-hum), and I’m big on the steady burning “Fire”, with its almost funky hook line in the chorus. One of the most underrated cuts is “Sacred Cowboys”, which boasts a pulse pounding chorus with lyrics that could’ve been the basis for a rather interesting music video. And then of course there’s “Shoot All the Clowns”, a song that Dickinson was arm-twisted into writing at the behest of Mercury Records, who were interested in releasing the album. Bruce tells the story best (check out his Anthology DVD for his funny recounting of the tale) but suffice it to say his “guidance” on the song was a cassette copy of Aerosmith’s Rocks shoved under his door with a sticky note on it saying “something like this would be good”. Its actually a rather hooky, groove-laden song with nice musical moments but marred by godawful lyrics. I agree with Dickinson’s take that its music video was actually better than the song.

Its worth emphasizing that without a solo record deal in place in 1992, Dickinson birthed this difficult album at great personal expense, in fact he paid for all of the recording sessions plus travel expenses himself, including the massive costs of flying out the Tribe of Gypsies to England to complete the album proper. It made his early 1993 decision to announce his departure from Maiden all the more risky, because although he still had the financial benefit of fulfilling his upcoming last tour with Maiden (the fraught Real Live Tour) he was effectively an unsigned artist with a much lighter bank account hoping that a good, pro-active label would pick it up. Dickinson and half of Mercury Records roster was dropped a mere three months after the album’s release, enough time for them to pay for a pair of music videos and some basic promotion, but the album was not a commercial success. It wasn’t even a complete artistic success in its own right, but it certainly was a victory for Dickinson in proving to fans and media that he could do something different apart from Maiden.

Essential Cuts: The most vivid examples of what that something different could be are found in the album’s two best songs; the Latin-flavored ballad “Change of Heart”, and the epic “Tears of a Dragon”. The former is an overlooked gem on this album, and one of the moments where Roy Z’s Tribe of Gypsies flavor really shines through with his dazzling touches of acoustic guitar flourish and flamenco-styled runs. The lyrics lament the end of a relationship, a relatively sedate topic, but they’re written from the perspective of a narrator that seems both able and unable to accept what’s happened. From sitting “alone at a window”, depressed to no end of course, he affirms that he’ll “be there, catching your tears / Before they fall, to the ground” — all while acknowledging that she’s had enough of their relationship: “You, you’re walking away / You couldn’t stay / You had a change of heart”. Dickinson’s vocal in the chorus is simply magnificent, particularly when backed up by harmonized vocals in specific moments. But the star of the song is Roy Z with his utterly gorgeous Latin-rock styled guitar solo, the kind of thing I wish he did more of on this album.

Then of course there’s “Tears of a Dragon”, and what else needs to be said about this song? Its not just one of Dickinson’s finest moments as a vocalist overall, but it would rate serious consideration for being one of the greatest metal ballads of all time. I’ve always appreciated just how personal Dickinson went here, essentially laying out his emotions for all to see like the “blood on the tracks” Bob Dylan once spoke of. Its a song about Dickinson’s dawning realization that he needed to leave Iron Maiden, but while that’s specific to him — it’s universality makes it a song about facing your fears and in fact surrendering to the fear. Regarding the song’s spiritual essence, Dickinson was fond of a Henry Miller quote that declared, “All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” It was this encapsulating quote that stayed in his mind as he wrote this song and as he made the decision to leave Iron Maiden, feeling that it was the only way for him to grow as an artist and as a person.

I’ll admit that its a song that hits my emotional center when I’m receptive to it, which is also why I’m very judicious about when and where I listen to it. Its one of those songs that’s so powerful that I actually avoid listening to it when I’m in a frivolous, music hungry mood — it’s meant for more than that. The odd drunken, emotional sing-a-long with friends has happened a few times with this as our rousing soundtrack, but even in that hazy state, I’m still left punctured by its dagger sharp subtext. I think there are things in all of our lives that we’re afraid of, and most of it usually concerns the fear of taking a risk or plunging into that darkness headlong. In that regard “Tears of a Dragon” can often be uncomfortable to listen to, a reminder of what hasn’t been done yet — but we need these reminders. I’ll be remiss if I don’t mention just how well its music video has held up over the years, some of those panoramic hill-side shots are still stunning. They could lose the goofy, bald fat man and his mid-nineties computer generated pixie dust scenes, but everything else really works in an almost dreamy, nightmarish vision kind of way. If you haven’t already, also check out the two other versions of the song found on the re-issued edition of the album with a second disc of bonus tracks, they’re special in their own right.

The Most Anticipated Albums Of The Year: Iron Maiden and Seven Spires Return!

The duality of these two new albums by both of these incredible bands isn’t lost on me. On one hand we have the pandemic delayed new album by my favorite band of all time, and on the other, a pandemic driven new release by one of metal’s most exciting new bands arriving a year and a half after they delivered a straight up masterpiece (and my 2020 album and song of the year winner!). For Iron Maiden, there was tension and a little nervous anticipation awaiting it’s release, not only due to the long wait but also because we just don’t know how many of these we have left from those guys. With Seven Spires, I still haven’t gotten over just how incredible Emerald Seas was, and I still listen to that album from time to time when I need a comfort jam or want to revel in it’s downright poetic, imagery rich storytelling via Adrienne Cowan’s incredible lyrics. So I went into their new album with no personal expectations and more of a sense of wide open curiosity about where they would possibly go next. These reviews are deep dives and long enough to prevent me from babbling on here, so lets get to it!


Iron Maiden – Senjutsu:

Here we go, Maiden’s seventeenth studio album Senjutsu, which is actually only the second time I’ve gotten to write about a new record of theirs in the near decade long existence of this blog. In my review for 2015’s The Book Of Souls, I lamented that a five year gap existed between it’s release and 2010’s The Final Frontier, the band’s mortality being stretched thin over time — little did I know that a global pandemic would delay it’s follow-up an extra two years (this album was reportedly completed and literally placed in a vault sometime in 2019) to make this the longest gap between Maiden releases in their history. The pandemic took many things from all of us, but if it turns out that it robbed us of one more additional Maiden album down the road, and Senjutsu turns out to be their swansong, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that. The band certainly haven’t indicated anything to suggest that, but common sense dictates that they’re coming to the end of the road. It made release night for this album extra special for me, I was so excited listening to it at midnight that I didn’t sleep until three in the morning thereabouts. They’re my favorite band of all time for good reason, because few other bands can make me feel that giddy about the prospect of new music like I’m eighteen again waiting outside the local record store on a Tuesday morning to nab an album and drive around aimlessly blasting it full volume.

And of course my reaction to the music went from the predictable release night euphoria of “This is awesome!” to a more considered, measured thought process upon concurrent listens. I’d say five days ago it was at it’s most critical ebb, where it felt like all I was doing was picking apart it’s flaws. This morning however, I put it on the headphones and found myself really engaging with much of the album with a clearer head, allowing it’s strengths to come into focus and making note of what I didn’t think worked all that well. So the big picture here: This is a stronger album by a hair than The Book Of Souls, largely because it’s a little over ten minutes shorter in runtime (still too damn long at 81 minutes!), and because it’s sequenced in a more engaging, cohesive manner. It also has fewer outright duds than Souls did, with only “Lost In A Lost World” and “Death Of The Celts” being fairly skippable here (debatable I’m sure). Hmm, okay I guess I’m of a mind to get the bad stuff out of the way first, so the point: The latter is being fairly compared in an inferior light to “The Clansman”, and I can certainly hear that in it’s far too similar intro melody sequence, and in the very similar skipping rhythm of the vocal melody (“…Wake alone in the hills / with the wind in your face…”). Of course it doesn’t help that the subject matter is essentially the same(ish), and I think that while its forgivable that a longtime veteran band will on occasion repeat a melody or motif in bits and pieces, its very noticeable when an entire song is a reworked reprise of an older classic. I mean we went through this already in 2003 when the (rather good I thought) title track of the Dance of Death album was essentially a reimagined “Number Of The Beast”. At least on that song they introduced a fresh folk melody infusion into the climatic guitar solo — here “Death Of The Celts” finds Steve attempting to merely replicate the same vaguely Braveheart-esque stirring melodies that got Bruce hopak dancing on stage at Rock In Rio in 2001.

While “Lost In A Lost World” doesn’t commit the same faux pas of rehashing a previous Maiden song to detrimental effect, it has its own sins that come in the form of a plodding rhythm, lethargic transitions, a rather uninspired vocal melody throughout that leads to the greater folly of Bruce sounding somewhat tired (or is it bored?). It also clocks in at a completely unnecessary 9:30 in length (“…Celts” was also a long one at 10:20), and I know this is a tired criticism by this point, but damn, an internal editor within the band would be welcome. I suppose its just the guys being at the age they are, and with how swell this post-reunion twenty years has gone that makes it easier for everyone to just shrug their shoulders and agree that everything in the song sounds cool. It makes me wonder if we plucked late 80s era Bruce, or hell any of the other guys and made them listen to these new albums… would they pick a fight with Steve and tell him that stuff simply needed to be cut and chopped? I’m betting on yes. It’s unfortunate that these two songs are spaced out evenly enough to kinda mar what is otherwise a mostly compelling Maiden album. A little caveat though… this record does take time to settle in one’s affections, being far more subtle in its machinations both rhythmically and melodically. Take the opening title track for example, with its sledgehammer pounding percussion and un-Maiden-like lumbering build up striking me as something that sounds like it came from a Bruce solo album ala Skunkworks meets The Chemical Wedding. We experienced something similar on Book Of Souls with “If Eternity Should Fail” (which really was a Bruce solo cut apparently), and I think “Senjutsu” works just as well, delivering a compelling performance from Bruce with some really anguished lead guitar melodies in the refrain.

It’s fair then to praise “Stratego” as being far more effective here than it was as a standalone single, coming on the heels of that unorthodox opening track, it’s a refreshing blast of classic Maiden gallop and swagger at the perfect moment. Honestly I’ve been really loving this song lately, finding it’s ultra-catchy verses drifting into my mind long after I’ve stopped listening to it. And this is why I have largely begun avoiding listening to singles ahead of time (it’s damn near impossible for me to resist checking out new Maiden though), because most of the time my brain receives the songs chosen for singles far, far better in the context of the album proper. Ditto for the spaghetti western invoking “The Writing On The Wall”, which as a direct counterpoint to “Stratego” feels far more welcome with its laid back vibes than it did on it’s own as the first single from the album (A Metal Pigeon law = metal bands are terrible at picking singles). There’s a novelty to Maiden trying their hand at something like this, and I think I appreciate the song for that freshness as well as for it’s melodic groove that has grown on me over umpteen listens, but I’ll stop short of saying its a great song. For the shortest song on the album, the four minute long “Days Of Future Past”, its the rare moment where I found myself wishing it had a bit of length to it, not because I wanted more of its decent if not ultimately memorable refrain, but it felt like it needed a change of direction midway through in a bridge that never materialized.

Since I didn’t intend this to be a track by track rundown but that’s what its turned into, let’s quickly cover “The Parchment” and “Darkest Hour”, both two of the more intriguing cuts on the album both lyrically and musically. The eastern tinged vibes in the lead guitars for “The Parchment” often give me flashbacks to “The Nomad” (kinda similar progression in that lead riff), and I really enjoy the pacing and structure presented here. For “Darkest Hour”, presumably the song referencing Churchill, I worried that the lyrical narrative might get in the way of melodic flow, but they did a deft job at managing that, and ushered in a chorus that is nicely bittersweet. Now for the two best songs on the album: “The Time Machine” has the best guitarwork on the album, from the eerie slowly plucked intro reminiscent of “The Legacy” from A Matter Of Life And Death to being a punchy foil to Bruce’s abruptly spaced out vocal lines in the verses. The magnum opus moment of course comes at the three minute mark where we transition into a classic Maiden moment, all epic gallop and gorgeous lead melodies combining into the most thrilling musical passage on the album. And my personal favorite “Hell On Earth”, where we get an absolutely enthralling, classic Maiden chorus that at once sounds exuberant and joyful and wistful and somber. This is one of those rare ten minute plus long songs that feels like five minutes, something that Maiden tends to pull off at least once per album (despite all our valid complaints about the length). I’ll sum it up by saying that while I’m grateful for Senjutsu, I wish it was a bit more uptempo, a bit more aggressive… I suppose what I really want is for them to can Kevin Shirley, hire Andy Sneap as their producer and let er rip ala Priest on Firepower. I can dream I suppose…

Seven Spires – Gods Of Debauchery:

Perhaps truly my most anticipated album of the year, Gods Of Debauchery is Seven Spires’ follow up to 2020’s AOTY/SOTY winner Emerald Seas, their third album and the one with the quickest incubation period and turnaround time. Some quick backstory, Emerald Seas was released in early February of 2020, and had some notable tours booked throughout that year — supporting Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum in the spring, followed up by a fall trek opening for Amaranthe and Battle Beast. One show into the Insomnium tour, the pandemic erupted and everything had to come to a halt. Just like that, the promise of capitalizing on the momentum that a truly well received album was cruelly yanked from under the band’s feet, and they, like the rest of us in our lives, were left dazed and confused. For me personally, I really clung to that album like a life raft throughout much of the year that followed, using it for inspiration and staving off depression. It was an escape into an incredibly well told story in a world that was as imaginative as a fine fantasy novel, or film, or video game. But my personal attachment wasn’t the reason why it was my album of the year. It really was simply that damned excellent from start to finish, and alongside Dialith’s incredible Extinction Six, was one of the rare shining gems of symphonic metal from the past decade.

While the pandemic derailed the band’s touring plans, they decided to make the most of their forced hiatus to immediately start working on a follow up. I thought it was an admirable decision that I wished more bands would have tried to aim for (regardless of how recently their previous album was released), because even if things opened up quicker than expected and the tours could have resumed, at least they’d have planted the seeds for ideas that could be developed into a full length release. Cut to well over a year and a half later of pandemic living, and the band has harvested the fruit of those seeds, a full length finished album that clocks in at just under an Iron Maiden-esque hour and eighteen minutes in length. I’m guessing that being able to sit and work 24/7 on music for weeks and months unending resulted in a pile up of ideas, and that the anger and frustration of 2020 soaked into the writing process because not only is this the longest Spires album to date, but also the darkest and most aggressive. It’s become a common thing recently to opine that bands should keep albums to a tight forty five minutes, and often times I think its not entirely accurate as far as being a indicator of a quality, filler-free album. But length has been the biggest criticism I’ve seen being leveled at this new album online, and I will concede that it did make digging into this record to parcel out all it’s secrets a massive challenge.

But before we talk about length, let’s focus on the other thing, that being Gods Of Debauchery’s amped up dosage of melodeath attack and that Dimmu Borgir symphonic black metal influence that many of these songs are steeped in. One of the main aspects of Emerald Seas that I loved was its shimmering, uplifting epic sweep, built on buoyant melodies and a sense of grand adventure. I think that hearing the darker, bleaker tones throughout most of these songs threw me a bit at first, and it required many more subsequent listens for me to really mesh with some of the vibes happening here — and of course I totally get why these songs came out the way they did. Frankly, any album that was written in 2020 has a right to sound extra pissed off and even nihilistic. But because Spires has more than just raw aggression in their toolkit, the key to success within these songs is how well the band balances those harsher elements against their ability to suddenly veer into beautiful melodies and soaring choruses. And actually, that’s kind of where length comes back into the picture, because it’s a heck of a challenge for any band to get that balance right all throughout sixteen(!) songs and well over an hour of music (more on this later). Thankfully, the album offers plenty of moments where the band manages that balancing act extremely well.

The awesome title track delivers a grandiose orchestral rush to accompany Adrienne Cowan’s raw, viciously harsh vocals on the chorus. There’s just enough flashes of Jack Kosto’s glorious lead guitar throughout here to lay some much needed color across the expanse of blackness that’s threatening to envelope everything, including an Aeternam-esque solo towards the end with incredible phrasing. Similarly on “The Cursed Muse”, Cowan’s immense singing range is on display during the refrain as a foil to her harsh vocal led passages, with enough emotional power in her vocal melodies to carry us along for the ride. And I really love “Ghost Of Yesterday”, which reminds me of Kamelot’s Karma/Epica era with its creative verses structured around playful rhythms and flute/string melodies, and a well thought out balance of clean and harsh vocal passages. The Kamelot vibes of course foreshadow the appearance of the one and only Roy Khan on “This God Is Dead”, which was one of the early singles from the album, and made waves through the power metal community — getting to hear Khan on something remotely Kamelot adjacent (in this case, influenced by) was a big frigging deal. And this song is a masterpiece, a gorgeous choral vocal introduction ushering in a fantastically epic, thrilling, symphonic-swagger fueled vocal back and forth between Cowan and Khan in the roles of a father/daughter duet. The brilliance of this song is in it’s well spaced out varying musical passages — clean vocals, harsh vocals, operatic led sequences, culminating in our two leads joining together for the final run in one of the band’s most glorious moments on record to date. Simply put, I’m emotionally shattered every time from the 9:13 moment onwards, and Kosto’s guitars at the very end of this sequence (9:40-9:50) are like rays of sunlight bursting through that fade too damn quickly.

Khan’s undeniably powerful performance on that song had me for awhile overlooking the song that preceded it, “In Sickness, In Health”, one of a pair of power ballads on the album that are emotionally heart wringing. This seriously could have been an inspired choice for a music video or pre-release single, it just has that pull to it. Unlike the beautifully piano centric “Silvery Moon” on Emerald Seas, the ballads here are adorned with Kosto’s GnR-esque wild, expressive hard rock guitars, and I’m totally here for them. His work on “The Unforgotten Name” is outstanding, and I should also commend drummer Chris Dovas and bassist Peter de Reyna for their unconventional rhythm section approach to these songs, eschewing the typical hard rock approach and opting for a more complex, progressive metal inspired touch with fills and blastbeats scattered throughout. Even the theatrical ballad closer “Fall With Me” is dressed with a little rock n’ roll panache, lending a gritty edge to Cowan’s wonderfully sweet lyrics. I really enjoyed all three songs, but “In Sickness, In Health” at this point rivals “This God Is Dead” for my favorite from the album, and I think at times takes the top spot simply for how it makes me feel from start to finish. I also want to give props to “Oceans Of Time”, where us Emerald Seas lovers get their brief and fleeting taste of that gorgeously uplifting swirl of melodies that characterized so much of that album. It’s by far the most unabashedly power metal moment on Gods, and in the context of just how dark this record is, I’m kinda surprised that it made it onto this album (to be fair, there is a storyline happening here that I still need to delve into).

So everything I’ve mentioned above compromises nine tracks, and roughly 43-44 (give or take) minutes of music, which would be a respectable showing for a new album for any band. And I could make the case that leaving off the rest of the songs on the album would have resulted in a stronger overall album… but there’s narrative cohesion to consider here, so is it really fair to make that case? That’s a debate for the comments I suppose. I’m always of the mind that songwriting should come before narrative, but Seven Spires is one of the rare bands that finds a way to deliver narrative in a beautifully interwoven way, with songs that feel unburdened by elements that make, say Ayreon albums (sorry Cary!) such a challenge for me to sit through. In that spirit though, I found that “Lightbringer” just didn’t work for me, though I appreciated the attempt to do something entirely different. I think most of the song is on target, but I find the chorus repetitive both melodically and syllabically, and I wonder if something as simple as a tiny variation in that chorus could elevate it entirely. That refrain just seems to continue on the same trajectory as the pre-chorus before it, and I find that I’m longing for a change-up in that moment. Similarly “Echoes of Eternity” had moments I loved (the chorus is very nice), but I need something else in that outro bridge besides an echoing of the refrain. But damn do I love the Eastern tinged elements happening in the verses here, and the abrupt rhythmic shifts that go along with them.

My other issue with the album’s length is that over the course of listening to such a long album, I started to come across fatigue with the amount of extreme metal passages in comparison to the band’s more prog/power metal side. Keep in mind I’m not anti-harsh vocals, I love death and black metal and grew up with those genres, but when you favor a band for their ability to veer between both of these disparate styles, any lingering in one style longer than the other will be noticeable. Case in point is “Dreamchaser” which comes in at over an hour into the tracklisting, and lacks a hook either via riff or vocals to keep my attention focused (and yes I am listening to this thing from start to finish, even though it was really tempting to attack it in chunks for manageability). I had similar impatient stirrings with “Gods Amongst Men” and “Shadow On An Endless Sea”, both tracks where in the notes I typed in my phone for the album I wrote, “too much Dimmu?”; which I know is one of the band’s biggest influences, so perhaps my notes were more a commentary on how the band’s sound was getting lost behind their influences. The problem with the streaming era is that all of us can make our own album edits via the act of selective listening / playlisting, and I can see future Pigeon skipping those five cuts (plus the two instrumentals). And as a Spires fan, that’s both frustrating and also leaving me feeling a little guilty because… well, I wanted to love everything on this album. As it is however, Gods Of Debauchery is a strong, albeit short of excellent follow up to the truly stunning Emerald Seas, and hey, that’s as strong an endorsement for how awesome this band is as I can think of.

The Last Chapter On 2020

Here we are at the end of all things, well… all things 2020 really. I’m calling it curtains on the metal year with my final reviews below, and the next updates after this will be my best songs and albums lists of 2020. I will acknowledge straight away that I know I didn’t review everything I planned to this year, particularly here at the end (I tried to make sure some of that stuff was addressed on the MSRcast episodes throughout the year), but hey it has been a tough, difficult year to adjust to and a lot of my free time was spent just making sure I was in a good headspace (I’ll never understand how I was able to mentally survive April and May). I know there’s going to be a slate of think pieces on 2020 as we march closer to New Years Eve. Thankfully life seems to be getting easier personally, even if things in general are getting worse out there with Covid. I’m still bummed out to acknowledge that this will be the first whole year I’ve gone without seeing a concert since I was what 17 or 18? I might have rounded a corner on a dull acceptance of live music deprivation, instead of the angsty panic I was feeling a few months ago where I was actively looking around for backyard death metal gigs in Houston and even briefly considering heading over to a nearby rehearsal studio where local bands held practices to see if anything was up. Based on all the news we’ve been hearing about the vaccines, it looks like we’re going to be waiting until mid-2021 at earliest before we get serious tours running again but I’m hopeful that things might move quicker than that.

I want to take a minute to throw out a massive shout out/thank you to the r/PowerMetal community, a group of snarky but intelligent and kind people who were largely my social lifeline during a time when seeing friends in person on the regular was not happening. That has started changing for me lately but for awhile there, if it weren’t for this bunch, the dark times would have been much darker. Special shoutout to Darko, Rocket, Four, Nuc, and Bones —- some of the nicest people that were not only instant therapy in those bleak early Covid weeks, but generally are always around to entertain my random thoughts at odd hours of the day. And there’s other shout outs as well, people and/or their content which helped me power through this hell year:

Rambalac (YouTube):

I’ve been on the Rambalac train for well over a year and a half now, long before the pandemic, his no nonsense, no dialogue walking tours of Japan being my window into a surreal and beautiful place that I really really want to visit now. A group of friends and I became huge fans of his, often finding ourselves having one of his videos on at group hangouts and finding ourselves transfixed on them, the scenery becoming the focal point of discussion. Now I don’t know what Rambalac looks like, he’s not interested in filming himself and I’ve only heard him speak briefly in Japanese in response to a passerby, but I’m convinced this man is a living saint. Before the pandemic, I googled his channel name to see if anyone else was thinking about these videos as therapeutic, escapist treasures like my friends and I were, only to find little to nothing (apart from the many people posting in his YouTube videos’ comments sections). But now the post pandemic media world has stumbled upon Rambalac’s channel and are flush with think pieces about his work. This is cool of course, because more eyeballs to Rambalac will keep him walking and that’s good news for all of us. I can’t begin to describe how calming his videos were in the immediate lockdown months of April and May (and truthfully ever since as well), I would take refuge in them and celebrate their capturing the essence of pre-pandemic life. The interesting thing here is that Ramby (yes I call him that) is continuing to shoot new videos, so you get to see post-pandemic Japan which is… not too dissimilar to what things were like in his videos before the pandemic. If you haven’t checked out this channel, you owe it to yourself. There are a handful of fascinating walking tour channels in his wake, such as Gezeyenti covering the Middle East and ProWalkTours who goes anywhere and everywhere (his Positano and Amalfi walks are breathtaking), and the splinter genre of driving videos best represented by J Utah who puts out captivating content. But Rambalac is the G.O.A.T. of the genre because of his singular focus: Japan is a beautiful, strange, and infuriatingly convenient place where walking is a way of life, 7-11s provide delicious, healthy food and I can only gaze at it all longingly through Rambalac’s gimballed eye.

Haim (The band):

I discovered Haim sometime in April when I was aimlessly wandering around listening to cheerful pop music on Spotify and this was recommended to me as a result. I became an instant fan of the sisters Haim and their breezy melodies with lush harmony vocal drenched guitar rock-pop (whatever we’re gonna call it). They’re a Los Angeles based band, and that California musical DNA ala Fleetwood Mac is inherent in their sound, which might be why a lot of their songs hit me with waves of nostalgia, bringing to mind my California based early childhood It’s that weird kind of nostalgia that you can’t explain logically, like yearning for a time you weren’t even alive for, or in my case, what I imagined adulthood would be like when I was a little kid (damn was I waaaay off). When I wasn’t listening to a crap ton of power metal (see below), I’d often be listening to songs like “Now I’m In It”, “The Wire”, “Something To Tell You”, and everything else from their three albums as I drove around various backroads of Texas to avoid feeling cooped up at home during lockdown. If there was ever a moment to discover a band who’s sound made the day brighter, it was right then and Haim was the right band.

Good Mythical Morning / Mythical Kitchen (YouTube):

I expect many people binged on feel good stuff throughout this year, and while I made the expected runs through old favorites like Seinfeld, Frasier, and Parks and Rec, I really relied on the endless treasure trove of happy nonsense that is Rhett and Link’s Good Mythical Morning and its after show Good Mythical More. I’m sure everyone knows about these guys and their taste tests and silly games (the March Madness snack playoffs are a particular favorite), but I expect that less know about how spectacular their cousin channel Mythical Kitchen is, with Josh Scherer aka Mythical Chef Josh as the host. As ridiculous and fun as their videos are, ranging from fast foods recreated to fancier versions, food fears, and just absolute nonsense like this, I think the best thing to come out of the Mythical Kitchen world is a podcast called A Hot Dog Is A Sandwich. Hosted by Josh and fellow Mythical chef Nicole Hendizadeh, it is my favorite new podcast in 2020, being a lighthearted debate show about food topics that you wouldn’t think are capable of being worthy of in-depth discussion. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated having this brief 40-ish minute break to bliss out into conversations about french fries vs onion rings or if chocolate is technically a candy to get a break from nonstop covid and/or election news. I know I don’t normally recommend podcasts on this blog, but I wanna throw this out there just in case anyone needs some happy happy fun times.

The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist (Spotify):

This was a labor of necessity back when it started in April, a personal playlist to help distract me and cobble together the most uplifting, positive power metal I could think of in one easy go for my own listening. I added everything that came to mind immediately and then realized I should be soliciting opinions from other people in the power metal community for unexpected gems and stuff I’d missed, and not only that, but to share the results of that help with anyone and everyone. So the playlist was made public and I set about adding to it slowly over the past many post-pandemic months now, eventually hitting my goal of getting to 300 songs by the year’s end (we’re well over that at last count). Thanks to everyone who suggested stuff, I’ve even had a few as recently as a couple weeks ago, and I see that the playlist has over 60 people following it. I’m still using it whenever I’m feeling gloomy that day, but it’s also doubling as a much needed brain saver when I have no idea what I want to listen to, just that I need it to be satisfying like right now! I’ll keep building the playlist over time, its not going anywhere, follow/subscribe to it if you haven’t yet and throw songs my way if you think of any.


Hatebreed – Weight Of The False Self:

I think I’ve written about how I got into Hatebreed via listening to The Jasta Podcast often enough on the blog (I’ve certainly talked about it on the MSRcast), but long story short, I was big on 2016’s The Concrete Confessional, it even made that year’s top albums list simply due to the unavoidable fact that I played it relentlessly for most of that year. It’s unlikely that its follow-up, released a lengthy four years later in the clunkily titled Weight Of The False Self will land on my 2020 list —- not because its a bad record, far from it in fact. However it’s late November street date (Covid delayed from its original spring release) is naturally going to prohibit me from listening to it nearly as much as its predecessor in time, and secondly, while it’s as hooky, aggressive, and adrenaline inducing as any Hatebreed album, its not as uniformly excellent as Concrete. That album channeled the seething rage of living in 2016 America better than any record that came out that year, it’s lyrics tapping into a vein of societal frustration and desperation that proved eerily prescient about the election that year. And that rage was reinforced by the full-on embrace of thrash metal riffing into their metalcore formula, resulting in some truly vicious, cathartic music. In as much as that record looked outward with a caustic eye, their new album sees Jasta reflecting inwards once again, his lyrics focusing on the universal topics of personal struggle, self-worth and self improvement. Take the rather shrewdly written “Set It Right (Start With Yourself)”, featuring the most affirming lyrics I’ve heard this year addressing an ultra divided society and the culture of social media toxicity. Rhythmically, the song brings a strong Black Flag “TV Party” vibe, built on call and response group vocals, with Jasta himself reminding me of vintage era Rollins not only in lyrical philosophy but in his delivery as well. Other highlights include “Cling To Life”, built on a sludged-down tempo that builds to a surprisingly pretty and fluid guitar solo courtesy of Wayne Lozinak; and I really love “A Stroke Of Red”, its call and response grinding, headbanging stomp erupting in a pit ready breakdown around the two minute mark that brings back a little of Concrete’s thrash attack back into the mix. There are actually no skippable songs throughout, a rare achievement on a twelve song tracklist, and this will be a frequent player in the months to come, regardless of whether it ends up on any lists or not.

Pyramaze – Epitaph:

Denmarks’ prog-power veterans Pyramaze are back with a follow up to 2017’s fair to decent Contingent. First of all congratulations are in order for the band, who with Epitaph have now passed a milestone in their history for the longest stretch of albums under their belt with a consistent lineup, as well as the largest amount of albums with one vocalist (Terje Haroy). This is only Haroy’s third album with the band, so its not like it was a monumental obstacle to clear, but during that lengthy wait between the lone 2008 Matt Barlow album and Haroy’s 2015 debut, it seemed like the band might not even get a shot with a third singer at the helm. With the Haroy era hitting this new benchmark, this is clearly the sound of Pyramaze, and anyone hoping for hints of their older approach will just have to stow that away —- after all that was two singers and a major songwriter ago. Producer extraordinaire Jacob Hansen is largely now the driving creative force for the band, their predominant songwriter along with outside help from Anubis Gate’s Henrik Fevre with vocal melodies and lyrics. And this new album sounds a lot like the past two, and depending on how you felt about those it’s either something to celebrate or bemoan. I largely enjoy modern Pyramaze because of Haroy’s satisfyingly smooth, hard rock informed vocals —- he may not be penning these vocal melodies himself, but they’re tailored to his strengths. His singing is set against a backdrop of slick, at times glossily produced slabs of modern melodic metal, and its enjoyable stuff for the most part, if not exactly challenging. Songs like “Bird of Prey” and “Transcendence” stick out here; the former for its alternative-rock guitarwork and Haroy’s way with a major key vocal melody that’s bright and hopeful, while the latter is a satisfyingly catchy vocal duet/tradeoff with UtA’s Brittney Hayes. And after multiple listens, “Particle” grew on me, its chorus deceptively earwormy despite the song being a little on the softer side. The big noteworthy track here is the album closing epic “The Time Traveller”, featuring both Barlow and Lance Hart as guest vocalists, uniting all three Pyramaze singers together in a nod to their union onstage at Progpower 2016. It’s interesting in that each singer’s section seems written to replicate their particular era with the band, hence the time travelling allusion in the title. It ends up being a solid song in the name of fan service, although not my favorite ultimately. I guess my frustration with Pyramaze, and indeed a lot of modern prog-power bands, is that there’s a sense of new music being very by the numbers, good enough to serve as a follow up from the last album (i.e. very safe). This is a good record, but not a great one, and I wonder if they have it in them to deliver something that would really wow us.

Dark Tranquility – Moment:

Dark Tranquility are back after a lengthy four year stretch (granted, mostly filled with touring) since 2016’s Atoma —- a record that I didn’t love but grew on me slowly over time, and that I came to appreciate when I saw the band live in 2018. Ever since that show, I’d find myself slowly dipping back into their catalog which I’d sadly neglected a bit over the past decade, and finding more moments that I’ve come to enjoy as much as early records like Haven and Damage Done. So I was looking forward to Moment with not only anticipation, but a catalog awareness that I normally don’t have enough wherewithal to cobble together before a non-favorite band releases something new. And I will say straight off the bat, if you were hoping that this would be a dramatic about face from the sounds the started exploring on that album via heavy synth layering… well, prepare to be disappointed. If anything the band has delved further into that direction, an interesting thing to consider given the lineup changes that occured before this album was recorded with longtime guitarist Niklas Sundin departing and Christopher Amott taking his place (alongside Andromeda guitarist Johan Reinholdz). Dark Tranquility has always been eye poppingly democratic in their division of songwriting responsibilities, with usually a mix of 3-4 members contributing significantly. When guitarist/contributing songwriter Martin Henriksson left the band in 2016, they had already created an album written with scant few contributions from him in 2013’s Construct, in practical terms transitioning his share of the workload to Sundin, drummer Anders Jivarp, and keyboardist Martin Brändström. Now with Sundin’s departure, Reinholdz seems to be stepping in and handling the remaining workload alongside the usual suspects, with oddly Amott left out this go round (why?). The further synth exploration yields an expected number of merely passable, nice in the moment cuts like “Standstill” (I really like that chorus though), “Transient”, and “Eyes Of The World”. Mikael Stanne’s clean vocals sound more polished than ever, but at times that becomes a liability when he uses them too much in a single track. He’s far more effective on album highlights “A Drawn Out Exit” and the spectacular “Identical To None”. I do appreciate that there’s more of a melo-death sensibility happening throughout this album, but the synths are my overwhelming impression when thinking about this album, and my appreciation for the album changes because of it depending on my mood. I’m eager to see what DT can do in the future with Amott writing, they need a little change in their approach for sure.

Persuader – Necromancy:

Persuader albums are such rare events that I always get a little excited at their arrival, this year in particular. They’re just comforting power metal blankets cut from that Blind Guardian/Iron Savior cloth and in a year where the new Demons and Wizards and Blind Guardian orchestral project were both largely dissapointments (and of course you know, the pandemic), I friggin needed some comfort! While its not quite the eight year gap between 2006’s When Eden Burns and its follow up The Fiction Maze, it has been over half a decade since Persuader has released new music, so I’m glad they decided to stick to the tried and true formula here. Longtime bassist Fredrik Hedström left the band last year, and instead of replacing him founding guitarist Emil Norberg is handling bass on this record, and its also the first time we’re hearing Nocturnal Rites’ Fredrik Mannberg on rhythm guitars here. But despite this, Mannberg picks up immediately on what the band’s about and sticks to the precision machine-gun riffing that these songs demand, and right out the gate we’re launched into “The Curse Unbound”, as fine an opener as I’d have hoped for. Its hard to talk about vocalist Jens Carlsson without mentioning Hansi, but when you hear his delivery of lines like in the chorus here “Far from home I’ve found myself all alone in the dark”, he just has that ever so familiar ability to escalate in pitch and yet maintain intensity that just screams classic BG. Along with the epic “Scars” and its glorious chorus (“I look behind the door!” *fist pump*), this is the most satisfying one-two punch combo since “Strike Down”/”Sanity Soiled” on the classic Evolution Purgatory. The band’s compositional skills haven’t taken a hit with all the years away, in fact it seems like they spent a lot of time on the details of these songs. Gems like “Reign In Darkness” have a multitude of awesome details to geek out over, the little Nicko McBrain-esque kickdrum led intro to Carlsson’s layered vocal choir, the darkly tinkling keyboards that pop up midway through in lieu of an expected guitar solo. Norberg and Mannberg are a great pair, just satisfying riffs and explosive leadwork all throughout the record —- if Norberg lacks the wild expressionism of Andre Olbrich, he makes up for it by crafting crushing riff patterns. At seven songs this might seem like barely an album, but its a tight 44 minute banger, and I’m starting to believe most bands should be aiming for something in that ballpark. Quality over quantity and all that, Persuader deliver the goods here.

Iron Maiden – Nights Of The Dead, Legacy Of The Beast: Live In Mexico City:

Why am I reviewing this? Because I want to complain. So yeah its another Maiden live album and another tracklisting that features “Iron Maiden”, “The Number Of The Beast”, and “Fear Of The Dark”, and although its worth complaining about their inclusion on every frigging Maiden live album —- that apparently has fallen on deaf ears over in the Maiden camp and its likely never going to change. And you know, I get it: What we’re fundamentally bitching about there is their inclusion in the setlist in the first place, nevermind the live recording. Maiden throws those songs into their setlist because the band’s likely perspective is to design as inclusive a setlist for most of their audience, including younger fans and infrequent concertgoer fans who maybe haven’t gotten to hear those classics live yet. This new live album is merely an audio document of the Legacy Of The Beast tour’s setlist, and in that sense it’s a meticulous and accurately preserved archive. The presence of “For The Greater Good Of God” is really the central draw of this for Maiden die-hards, it was a surprise to see it on the setlist and a thrill to hear it live, it being my favorite song off AMOLAD. My problem really isn’t with the setlist, as frustrating as it can be for a longtime/diehard fan. The real issue with this release is that it’s merely a live album, as in solely an audio document. Are you kidding me Maiden? This was arguably the band’s most dazzlingly spectacular visual show in their history, perhaps only equalled by the Somewhere Back In Time World Tour (08-09) where we got to see the mummified Eddie and Powerslave era stage set recreated. If you saw the show, or even saw some of the decent fan-shot footage on YouTube, you’ll think of the moving replica Spitfire hanging above them on stage, or the beautiful stained glass cathedral window interior set with the lit candelabras, Bruce with his flamethrowers, and so much more. I can’t even begin to understand why the band would’ve opted for an audio document instead of an audio AND video document, or hell, just the video —- this show deserves a Bluray like En Vivo!. Give me a reason to give you money, because as it is, I’ve played through this live record a couple times on Spotify but without a visual companion, I’m a little less invested in it knowing what I know about the stage show. I suppose it’s a bit of an old school throwback to just deliver a live album in the new era of streaming video on demand, ever shifting attention spans, and endless content… but I guarantee you during this time of no concerts, I would’ve giddily sat down with a new Maiden live Bluray and savored every second.

Another Night in the City: The Return of Chicago’s High Spirits

Longtime readers of the blog will have by now taken note of just how much the seasons tend to shift my listening habits around, and they’ll also note just how much I dislike summer in general. If you think that’s an unusual attitude to have, I’ll remind you that I live in Houston, Texas —- but there are silver linings to the oppressive heat and humidity of a Texan summer. One of which is just how well wild, classic styled hard rock pairs with the rising mercury, case in point being the timely arrival of You Are Here, a new album by the Chicago based rock band High Spirits. Okay, they’re in a band in that they play live, but in reality High Spirits is the work of one highly motivated musician in Chris Black. You may have heard his other work before as well —- he moonlights as the drummer for Pharaoh, whose 2012 album Bury the Light came in second on that year’s best of list, and he’s also the sole mastermind behind Dawnbringer, whose excellent Into the Lair of the Sun God placed eighth on that very same list! I guess you can say that I’m a fan of the guy. I was enthralled by the last High Spirits album, Another Night, as much by the music as well as the throwback album cover featuring a very eighties logo design slapped on top of a neon splashed portrait of nighttime Chicago. All of that combined was the very essence of the “Big City Night” that one Klaus Meine once sang about, and if you’re not getting a serious Scorpions vibe when you listen to High Spirits, you’re hopeless. The German greats, alongside a heady dose of Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, radio ready Rush, and classic NWOBHM spice make up the ingredients of Chris Black’s rock n’ roll cocktail.

 

In the past half decade, retro metal has seemingly come and gone en vogue, and from my point of view, very few of those bands managed to stamp their own identity on their music. What separates High Spirits from the pack is that while the music has sonic touchstones to classic bands and eras bygone, there is no attempt at emulation —- in other words, Black is making music for today, not in a vain attempt to recreate 1982. I think that one of the aspects of Black’s musical design here that most vividly brings to mind the past is his complete lack of irony, and his utter disregard for what happened to rock music in the 1990s (you know, when a great deal of joy was sucked out of it). Hipsters be wary, this is genuine rock music made with honest intentions —- Black has stated his desire to see High Spirits grow, for them to be able to tour longer and more extensively. Again I’m reminded of the Scorpions, a band born of a time when there was no shame in hoping to play bigger venues, to have more intricate staging, to play wild rock n’ roll in the manner it was meant to be played in. I’ve read that High Spirits live shows are unabashed in their sincerity, both from band and audience alike, they are an active experience, not an event to be afraid of publicly showing your love for a style of music that a lot of unwitting people think is dead.

 

Whats utterly bananas about Chris Black and his work in High Spirits is that he is everything that you hear on the albums: All instruments, all vocals (including harmonies and overdubs). As I mentioned above, he has a band that he takes out live for small runs of select dates, but on album High Spirits is an entirely one man show. It doesn’t sound like it, and that’s testament to Black’s songwriting skills and overall artistry in understanding band dynamics in aspects of rock music —- as in the interplay between rhythm and lead guitars. Take the album opener “When the Lights Go Down”, with its loose yet tight riffing complemented by scorching lead fragments at the tail end of choruses. The songwriting here is razor sharp, Black has a wonderful and rare ability to pen adrenaline soaked, speedy choruses that outpace their verse section anchors (for further proof, check out “Full Power” on the band’s debut album). These are the kinds of songs that cause speeding tickets. Black slows down the tempo a touch on the next track, “I Need Your Love”, where the swinging rhythm guitar and the amped up speed in the pre-chorus bridge just smacks of the classic riffing of Rudolf Schenker. Black’s vocals are unusual for this type of music, while he’s skilled enough to carry melodies and hold notes, his tone is raw, punky even, and his delivery is borderline laid back. If I can provide some adequate frame of reference, its basically the exact opposite of Sebastian Bach’s histrionics —- Black’s approach to singing is workmanlike in serving the song only (I mean that in a positive way).

 

There’s plenty more in the way of good songs on offer as well, most notably the eponymous “High Spirits”, an infectious high speed rocker with crunchy riffs and a propulsive rhythm bed, and a chorus that lives up to its name. Its a jubilant song, like much of the material on You Are Here. The closest thing to a ballad on the album is the slightly moody “I Will Run”, with its juxtaposition of lonely solo guitar patterns in the intro followed immediately by a slamming riff bed upon which Black paints a bleakly romantic picture of gritting one’s teeth in the face of adversity, to “take to the stars and the streetlights”. Of course all this praise isn’t to suggest that the band has no critics or its share of criticism, the biggest being Black’s tendency to live in worlds of relatively lo-fi production. If you’re expecting booming bass, thundering drums, and intense dynamics you’ll be disappointed. Black tends to like his guitars compressed and a tad fuzzy, with the lead parts mixed up top while the vocals at times seem to sink beneath everything else. There are moments when a chorus could be made to “pop” more if it was simply mixed to be more up front, but this is a production choice that benefits the album in particular moments as well. If you’re used to listening to fuzzy alt-rock, or indie dream-pop or even old school early proto metal bands of the 70s, you’ll be able to handle High Spirits’ production. This is great summer music, evocative of the sound of car tires and beer bottles clinking, the dirty, mucky feel of hot concert venues, and of walking out of those venues to smell the nighttime rain on steaming pavement. My associations of this band’s music with this time of the year are so strong that to be honest… I’m not sure if I’ll be listening to it come November, but for right now its pretty much perfect.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOe-QQ-7LYo&w=420&h=315]

 

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