Saturday, 11 September 2010

Stone Sour - Audio Secrecy [7/10]

It might be considered fair to say that Stone Sour’s musical output has rather predictably evolved (or devolved, personal opinion depending) consistently into more mainstream territory ever since Corey Taylor decided to resurrect his pre-Slipknot outfit almost 8 years ago. Some of heavy metal’s finest have followed the same pattern. Machine Head’s infamous dabble into nu-metal from the pulverisingly heavy nature of their first two records. Metallica transforming from thrash metal’s ultimate kings into US rock radio’s poster boys in 1991. Christ, even Slipknot themselves. What sets these bands apart from the 30 Seconds To Mars’ of this world is when they attack the mainstream with enough ingenuity and grit behind them to maintain their credibility. Somehow, even in spite of being one of heavy metal’s most commercially viable bands in the first place, Stone Sour have pulled this off, with quite frankly fantastic results.

Though the cliché instrumental title track intro leaves a little to be desired and feels somewhat pointless, what follows is a very rarely flawed collection of rock songs with the best pop sensibilities, and complete unabashed made-for-radio ballads. Stop dry heaving. It’s not as bad as you’re thinking. As a matter of fact, open your mind a little, and you’ll find places where it’s simply fucking brilliant. ‘Mission Statement’ truly kicks off the proceedings and comes out exactly as its title would suggest. It’s simple, it’s direct, and it’s an absolute showcase of Corey Taylor’s vocal capabilities, his voice ranging from roar to soar, backed up with what might be the tightest rhythm section in contemporary metal. ‘Digital (Did You Tell)’ doesn’t exactly deviate from the path ‘Mission Statement’ set, but still holds an identity totally of its own, with possibly the catchiest riff in Stone Sour’s catalogue anchoring a song surrounded by some of the most infectious vocal lines you’ll hear all year, and look out for the inventive and imaginative guitar unison section. Unless you’ve become a hermit in the last few months, you’ve likely heard ‘Say You’ll Haunt Me’ and soaked up all of its unashamedly commercial charms. It’s the closest Corey has ever come and probably ever will come to writing his own Barry Manilow number (again, stop dry heaving), but it’s delivered in his distinctively dark and oddly machismo fashion. Massive chorus. Truly huge. Seriously. You could do weights with this shit and you’d be a brick shithouse in a matter of days. ‘Dying’ is where Stone Sour fan’s will likely start to gawp a little, and be forced to either take a step back and accept that their favourite band is experimenting or conclude that they’re money-grabbing whores who don’t deserve your attention. It’s not difficult to see how the latter reaction could come into play, since ‘Dying’ is essentially the best song Nickelback never wrote. But I refer you to the aforementioned ‘ingenuity and grit’ that, even in its worst moments, this album is drenched in. A simple opening of the mind allows this song to be nothing but a straight ahead banger. And I fucking hate Nickelback. ‘Let’s Be Honest’ comes out as a bit of a throwback - this wouldn’t look at all out of place on a Drowning Pool or a Soil album. It genuinely feels like it's 2001 all over again. It’s not the albums strongest point, but it’s not its weakest point either. Thankfully, this isn’t to be where the album dips and never comes back up, as is customary with so many albums in this day and age. ‘Unfinished’ continues in a similar vein to our last track, but the result is just an all round better crafted song, sharing just enough equal amounts energy and pop injection to make it work. It’s nothing special, nor does it intend to be or dress itself up as such. It is the simplest of musical pleasures – a catchy rock song. Listeners be warned though, if you think ‘Dying’ has at least been the wettest point of the album and it can’t get any worse from here (not this writer – ‘Dying’ is a fucking tune. Fact), it’s about to get a whole lot wetter with ‘Hesitate’, the biggest diversion from Stone Sour’s original sound you’ll find on the whole album. Whereas ‘Dying’ retained enough of the fire in Corey’s voice to get away with it, ‘Hesitate’ takes the radio ballad format full throttle. It is so disgustingly what every record label wants their bands to deliver...and yet, it still comes out at the end holding its head high. It’s almost as if becoming so commercially friendly has ended up being the biggest “Fuck you” that Stone Sour could ever conjure. ‘Nylon 6/6’ and ‘Miracles’ are either the place where the album dips or the place where the band take you into a new direction entirely (once again, opinion depending). ‘Nylon 6/6’ is essentially what you’d expect to hear in a filler track from the first album, and ‘Miracles’ is what Alice In Chains would sound like with a pop sheen. ‘Pieces’ doesn’t exactly pick momentum back up, nor does it dip it any further, its biggest strength and its biggest weakness being that it could easily pass for any WWE pay-per-view’s theme song. ‘The Bitter End’ is a massive improvement on the last three tracks, echoing the mood and feel of Come Whatever (May) while still retaining the (you guessed it) ever evident commercial-cum-WWE tendencies. ‘Imperfect’ is undoubtedly the highlight of the ballad side of the album, passing as the more sorrowful albeit less intense cousin of ‘Bother’, whereas ‘Threadbare’ closes proceedings with an amalgam of stoner-fuelled verses and grungy choruses, tailed off with a distinctly Mastodon-esque closing riff.

This has been the hardest album review I’ve attempted so far in my *cough* career. Lately I’ve been seemingly inundated with so many stellar albums to potentially review that I’ve actually had to choose which ones to write about. This is neither stellar nor disappointing. It’s just a reliable Stone Sour record. Whether that’s a good thing or not is for you to decide. This won’t exactly rattle anybody’s cages or suddenly introduce Stone Sour to a new audience lapping at their feet. This won’t turn Stone Sour into a Slipknot in other words. But it’s undoubtedly a progression on their part. The problem the band faces is that they have always been just lightly tapping on the door of greatness, always seeming too afraid to boot the fucker down and take its inhabitants hostage. Don’t turn your back on Stone Sour just yet though. They’re getting there. And when it happens, you’ll be glad you didn’t give up on them. Guaranteed.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Volbeat - Beyond Hell/Above Heaven [8/10]

Volbeat are the best band to come out in the last 5 years. Fact. There’s no opinion here, it’s stone cold truth. Volbeat are everything the heavy metal world longs for in a bleak landscape engulfed in the pretentious artistry of American rock/heavy metal and the mainstream-hugging twattery that’s choking the life out of some of the greatest bands in the world, who far too often go ignored as a result of the aforementioned twattery. Volbeat are just one of those bands. Massive on the continent, those of us over here in Blighty and even more so those across the Atlantic have barely been afforded an opportunity to feast on the Metallica/Misfits/Johnny Cash flavoured schizophrenic rock n’ roll machine that is Volbeat. Three absolute corkers of albums have come and seemingly passed us by in the last 5 years. Look for all that to change with Beyond Hell/Above Heaven, Volbeat’s fourth full length effort and one of their strongest.

The first 4 tracks on the record are the best example of the multiple headed beast of Volbeat the band have ever presented. ‘The Mirror And The Ripper’ is the best introduction to the album you could possibly get. Its Metallica-sized guitar tone accompanies Michael Poulsen’s massive yet unorthodox voice like a pint does a fag, while ‘Heaven Nor Hell’ begins as a complete AC/DC tribute but quickly transforms into something that’s so ridiculously signature Volbeat it’s not even funny, all the while led along by the inclusion of not one, not two, but THREE harmonica solos (Yeah, a fucking harmonica. And it’s not even annoying. It’s tasteful, it’s improvised, and it’s fucking perfect). Following the softer nature of our first two tracks, Volbeat soon get their metal on with ‘Who They Are’, a song that owes as much to Slayer as it does to Social Distortion. In typical Volbeat fashion, they follow this up with a downright pop song in lead single ‘Fallen’, which boasts a main riff that’s just as catchy and hummable as its gigantic chorus. ‘A Better Believer’ is the only point in the album where you’re reminded of something from their past (say something like ‘Maybellene I Hofteholder’ from their last record), as one of this albums greatest strengths is that it has a feel totally of its own and feels so fantastically separate from any of their previous output. ‘7 Shots’ begins as it means to completely deviate from, its intro sounding like a choice cut from any good Western movie before it throws you into a world of pure 80’s thrash indulgence, hosted of course by Poulsen and a guest spot from Mille Petrozza of Kreator fame. As is customary with Volbeat up to now, they don’t tend to stay in one feel for too long, and as such ‘A New Day’ is not an 80’s inspired metal masterpiece but rather what Metallica would sound like if they started writing Green Day songs, whereas ’16 Dollars’ takes us even further away from the metal world, which tends to happen if the song in question is a 50’s inspired rockabilly throwback, replete with a stand up bass smacking away in the background and a verse melody lifted almost entirely from Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’ (as a matter of fact, the song is namechecked in the lyrics). But as is even more customary with Volbeat, somehow, is that they don’t stay away from metal for too long either. ‘A Warrior’s Call’ is simply one of the best songs they’ve ever written. Composed as an entrance song for Danish boxer Mikkel Kessler, you may be forgiven for expecting a cast-off from the Volbeat B-Side’s vault. You couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s a testosterone-fuelled barrage of weighty riffs and hot-blooded melodies backed with the most simultaneously cliché but forgivable lyrics you’re likely to ever hear. Even the constant use of “LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE” won’t put you off (and if it does, then I’m sorry, but you’re an awful, awful human being). ‘Magic Zone’ is an example of how Green Day could still write songs that don’t so blatantly catapult into the mainstream, but still sound pretty much exactly the same, while ‘Evelyn’ is without a doubt the heaviest song Volbeat have ever written, and who better to lend a hand to the proceedings than Barney Greenway of Napalm Death? It’s a huge departure for Volbeat in terms of its sheer unrelenting aggression...until THAT chorus comes in, and you’re reminded who you’re listening to. It’s such a genius and subtle juxtaposition that you won’t be able to stop bopping your head (again, if you don’t, you’re an embarrassment to the human race). ‘Being 1’ is the sound of country (FINALLY) being given a punky and abrasive edge, and serves as an easy feedline into our final track. Appropriately entitled ‘Thanks’, it’s simply Volbeat thanking their ever-growing fanbase for all the support. The lyrics are delightfully cheesy, and probably intentionally so, but it’s so difficult to be bothered – Volbeat always seem to pull off what most other bands would never get away with, and not only do they just get away with it, they do it with such undeniable attitude.

You may have noticed throughout reading this how often other bands are referenced in regards to how the songs sound. It’s not a stretch to say that Volbeat’s influences are blatant. But that’s one of their greatest qualities: whereas a band like, for example, Trivium would deny sounding like Metallica at times, Volbeat wear their influences on their sleeve. They aren’t striving to do something original. They aren’t hellbent on a musical revolution. They don’t want to change anyone’s life or be the greatest band in the world. They just want to make music they love to play, and if that comes out sounding like Slayer, Elvis Presley, The Misfits, or all three, so be it. This is the album’s charm, as is the case with everything they’ve put out before. It’s just good fucking music. One of the worst things about falling in love with a somewhat “small” band is that should they ever become the huge, world-conquering commodity that you’re so confused about them not being already, they aren’t “your” band anymore, and you’ll slowly feel yourself becoming less attached to them until they become just another band in your record collection. Despite this definitely being the case with this writer and Volbeat, I can’t deny it nor stress it enough: Volbeat should be fucking huge. Monolithic. Arena-sized. And one day, they will be. All you have to do is do yourselves all a massive favour, and pick this album up. If you don’t like it, I’ll personally give you your money back (Task: which part of this was a lie?). But you will. And as I’ve said before, if you don’t, then I send you my sincerest apologies, but you’re a complete gimp. Get involved.