Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bruce Dickinson: (1996) Skunkworks

Displaying a sometimes Rush-like refined prog groove and plenty of his traditional science-and-literature lyrical themes, Bruce Dickinson deserves high marks for Skunkworks, the ex-Iron Maiden vocalist's fourth solo effort. This 1996 release signals Dickinson's tentative shift toward music generally in tune with (but still somewhat restrained when compared to) his seminal work with Maiden. The occasionally over-serious, high-concept imagery is about what fans would expect, but the open, less metallic accompaniment (that still rocks by any standard) has a non-chronological familiarity. Joining the singer on Skunkworks are musicians Alex Dickson (guitars), Alex Elena (drums), and Chris Dale (bass). Highlight tracks include "Solar Confinement," which while lyrically murky, has a great chorus, and the Soundgarden-esque "I Will Not Accept the Truth." "Headswitch" is also a treat, with its updated Deep Purple groove. This track also features some of Dickson's best work. A year after Skunkworks, Dickinson joined up with former Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith and made a more defined return to classic form. Most agree that the Smith period is the singer's finest, but Skunkworks has some merit of its own, foreshadowing what would become a highly approved stylistic shift. -- Jason Anderson

1.Space Race
2.Back from the Edge
5.Solar Confinement
7.I Will Not Accept the Truth
8.Inside the Machine
13.Strange Death in Paradise

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Fields Of The Nephilim: (1990) Elizium

For the first time since Dawnrazor, the Nephilim worked with someone other than Bill Buchanan as producer; whatever Andy Jackson's particular qualifications, happily he knew not to ruin a good thing. The end result was the band's best all-around album, consisting of four lengthy pieces that showcase their now near-peerless abilities to create involved, textured, driving, and loud pieces of rock. It was still goth as all heck, but like the best bands in any genre, the Nephilim transcended such artificial limitations to create their own sound. McCoy still comes up with an occasionally curious lyric, to put it mildly, but such is the power of his performance as well as the band's that, at least for the time it's playing, Elizium really does sound like it's about to call up darkling spirits from the nether planes. The opening song is divided into four parts but mainly known by its second, "For Her Light," which was edited into a single. It moves from initial crashes of noise, feedback, and keyboards to catchier brooding and riff action, a calmer midsection with appropriate samples of Alistair Crowley, and a last slamming run to the song's conclusion. "Submission" stands on its own, switching between minimal bass with guitar stabs and massive crescendos. "Sumerland (What Dreams May Come)" takes the apocalyptic element of the Nephilim to its furthest extent; its relentless pulse supports some of the most powerful guitar out there while McCoy achieves a similar high point with his commanding voice. "Wail of Sumer" concludes Elizium on a striking two-part note, gently floating rather than exploding over its length, while McCoy's lost, regretful voice drifts along with it as a soft, yet still unnerving conclusion. Combine that with another fantastic job on art design, and Elizium, once you accept the Nephilim's basic conceits, simply stuns.
-- Ned Raggett

1.Dead But Dreaming
2.For Her Light
3.At the Gates Of Silent Memory
4.Paradise Regained
6.Summerland (What Dreams May Come)
7.Wail Of Summer
8.And There Will Your Heart Be Also

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Bruce Dickinson: (1997) Accident Of Birth

Of all of Bruce Dickinson's solo albums, Accident of Birth sounds the most similar to Iron Maiden, which isn't surprising since former Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith co-wrote many of the songs and plays on the record. The album is better than many latter-day Maiden efforts, and though the songwriting is occasionally uneven, the best moments (including "Man of Sorrows") make it an intriguing album. -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine

2.Toltec 7 Arrival
4.Taking the Queen
5.Darkside Of Aquarius
6.Road to Hell
7.Man Of Sorrow
8.Accident of Birth
9.The Magician
10.Welcome to the Pit
12.Arc Of Space

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bruce Dickinson: (1995) Alive in Studio A

Perhaps second only to Rob Halford, Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson was the most acclaimed and instantly recognizable vocalist to emerge from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement of the early-'80s. Born Paul Dickinson on August 7, 1958, in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, he adopted the first name Bruce as a youngster for reasons unknown. Shortly after relocating to Sheffield as a teenager, Dickinson became enamored of such '70s heavy metal bands as Deep Purple, and after an attempt at becoming a drummer didn't work out, he began singing in local bands -- Styx (not the renowned American band of the same name), Speed, and Shots. But none of these bands broke out of regional status, something that would change when Dickinson fronted his next band, Samson.
Alive in Studio A is a double-disc set that finds the former Iron Maiden singer running through solo material and Maiden classics not only live in the studio, but also at the Marquee club. Both sets are tight and powerful, but the Marquee disc benefits from the presence of an actual audience, and, when taken together, the set proves that Dickinson could still rock as hard in the mid-'90s as he did in the early '80s. ~~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

2.Shoot All The Clowns
3.Son Of A Gun
4.Tears Of The Dragon
5.1.000 Points Of Light
6.Sacred Cowboys
7.Tattooed Millionaire
8.Born in '58
10.Change of Heart
11.Hell No
12.Laughing In The Hiding

2.1.000 Points of Light
3.Born in '58
4.Gods of War
5.Change of Heart
6.Laughing in The Hiding
7.Hell No
8.Tears of the Dragon
9.Shoot All the Clowns
10.Sacred Cowboys
11.Son of A Gun
12.Tattooed Millionaire

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Long Distance Calling: (2007) Satellite Bay

Got your epic metal if you want it. Which is exactly the goal of Long Distance Calling's debut album, which is short on surprise but long on atmosphere, and sometimes that's all that's needed. Admittedly for many, the mere mention of an album consisting of all-instrumental, atmospheric/loud prog-influenced stomps and meditations almost does all the work for it, so even though the German quintet's members have earlier experience in other acts, right now they're just making an individual mark. Taken on its own merits, though, Satellite Bay delivers exactly what would be expected of it -- head-nodding moments of gently building beauty, explosive crescendos, and a general sense that they will, indeed, one day open for Neurosis (or at least be on a co-headlining tour with Pelican in Central Europe). Songs like "Aurora" deliver the gently rumbling and contemplative atmosphere one would expect, taking Ummagumma-style Pink Floyd rambles and giving them more of an obsessively structured focus up into where the feedback fully kicks in. There's a little variety here and there which will help them with wherever they go next -- the nervous ghost-of-post-punk chugging on "Horizon" shows they've been listening to the likes of Interpol and various fellow travelers, and not to bad effect.
Amusing touch: Peter Dolving's movie-trailer voice of doom on "Built Without Hands." ~~ Ned Raggett

2.Fire in the Mountain
5.Very Last Day
6.Built Without Hands
7.Swallow The Wate

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W.A.S.P.: (1984) W.A.S.P.

With glam rock making a comeback of sorts in 1984 (Mötley Crüe, Ratt, etc.), another Los Angeles band, W.A.S.P., couldn't have picked a better time to release its self-titled debut. By merging lyrics that dealt with the expected heavy metal themes (sex, Satanism, etc.) alongside Blackie Lawless' rough vocals and Chris Holmes' guitar riffing, the band sounded and looked more menacing than your average L.A. glam band at the time. Add to it a stage show that was gimmick-heavy (Lawless would drink blood from a skull and rip open a pillow, while wearing buttless leather pants and saw blades on his arms), and you had a "can't miss" recipe for controversy and publicity -- resulting in the debut's eventual gold certification. The album contains most of their best-known tracks, such as the raging singles/videos "I Wanna Be Somebody" and "L.O.V.E. Machine," plus the anti-establishment "School Daze," the semi-ballad "Sleeping (In the Fire)," and the angst-filled anthems "The Flame," "Hellion," "On Your Knees," and "Tormentor." [The 1998 CD reissue contains three bonus tracks, including a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black," as well as their overtly sexual early fan fav, "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)."] -- Greg Prato

1.Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)
2.I Wanna Be Somebody
3.L.O.V.E. Machine
4.The Flame
6.School Daze
8.Sleeping (In The Fire)
9.On Your Knees
11.The Torture Never Stops
12.Show No Mercy
13.Paint It, Black

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Fields Of The Nephilim: (1988) The Nephilim

Having built a considerable and passionate fanbase, the Nephilim approached their second album with confidence and a clutch of stunning new songs. The resulting, semi-self-titled release blows away the first by a mile (the art design alone, depicting an ancient, worn book with strange symbols, is a winner), being an elegantly produced and played monster of dark, powerful rock. Even if McCoy's cries and husked whispers don't appeal to all, once the listener gets past that to the music, the band simply goes off, incorporating their various influences -- especially a good dollop of pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd (think songs like "One of These Days") -- to create a massive blast of a record. Buchanan again produces with a careful ear for maximum impact, whether it be the roaring rage of "Chord of Souls" or the minimal guitar and slight keyboard wash of "Celebrate"; McCoy's vocal on the latter is especially fine as a careful, calm brood that matches the music. Perhaps most surprising about the album is that it yielded an honest-to-goodness U.K. Top 40 hit with "Moonchild," which is very much in the vein of earlier songs like "Preacher Man" but with just enough of a catchier chorus and softer guitar part in the verse to make a wider mark. Though the first part of the album is quite fine, including such longtime fan favorites as "The Watchman" and "Phobia," after "Moonchild" the record simply doesn't let up, building to a fantastic three-song conclusion. "Celebrate" is followed by "Love Under Will," a windswept, gloomily romantic number with a lovely combination of the band's regular push and extra keyboards for effect. "Last Exit for the Lost" wraps everything up on an astonishing high; starting off softly with just bass, synths, one guitar, and McCoy, it then gently speeds up more and more, pumping up the volume and finally turning into a momentous, unstoppable tidal wave of electric energy. ~~ Ned Raggett

2.The Watchaman
5.Chord Of Souls
7.Celebrate (Second Seal)
8.Love Under Will
9.Last Exit For The Lost

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Fields Of The Nephilim: (1987) Dawnrazor

Losing the saxophone player from earlier EPs and taking advantage of better budgets and studios, the Nephilim on their first full album established themselves as serious contenders in the goth world. It certainly didn't hurt having signed to Beggars Banquet, home of such acts as Bauhaus and the Cult, though the more obvious source of the Nephilim's sound at this point was the Sisters of Mercy, various attempts to deny it aside. Like Eldritch's crew, the Nephilim fivesome weren't aiming just for the clad-in-black audience, but at being a great group in general; while that goal wasn't quite achieved on Dawnrazor, the band came very close.
With sympathetic and evocative production throughout by Bill Buchanan, the album strongly showcases another chief element of the Nephilim's sound: Ennio Morricone. The at-the-time totally outrageous fusion of smoky, cinematic spaghetti western guitars with the doom-wracked ominous flavor of the music in general, not to mention McCoy's growled invocations of pagan ceremonies and mystic energy, provoked a lot of merriment from outside observers. The Nephilim stuck to their guns, though, and by wisely never cracking a smile on this album, they avoided the cheap ironic way out. Songs here which would become classics in the band's repertoire included the fiery "Preacher Man," which sounds like what would happen if Sergio Leone filmed a Stephen King story; the quick, dark gallop of "Power" (originally a separate single, then added to the album on later pressings); and the slow, powerful build of the title track, featuring McCoy practically calling the demons down on his head. For all of the undeniable musicianship and storming fury of the songs, sometimes things just get a little too goofy for words, as revealed in a classic, unintentionally hilarious lyric by McCoy from "Vet for the Insane": "The flowers in the kitchen...WEEP for you!." ~~ Ned Raggett

1.Intro (The Harmonica Man)
2.Slow Kill
3.Laura II
4.Preacher Man
5.Volcane (Mr. Jealousy Has Returned)
6.Vet For The Insane
11.The Tower
13.The Sequel

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Bruce Dickinson: (1990) Tattooed Millionaire

In 1990, Bruce Dickinson launched his solo career with Tattooed Millionaire, which is far from a carbon copy of his work with Iron Maiden. Many of the fans who knew him as Maiden's lead vocalist assumed that this solo debut would be Maiden-like -- they expected an album of aggressive yet melodic fantasy metal in the Maiden/Ronnie James Dio/Black Sabbath vein. But Tattooed Millionaire found Dickinson favoring more of a hard rock/pop-metal approach. This album is full of glossy and lighthearted pop-metal that wouldn't be out of place on an album by Winger, Bon Jovi, or Def Leppard. "Lickin' the Gun" is more Aerosmith than King Diamond, and "Son of a Gun" is more Bad Company than Candlemass. And while some Maiden worshipers might prefer to hear Dickinson singing fantasy metal, the fact is that Tattooed Millionaire is excellent. With this album, Dickinson did what fellow Brit Rob Halford did on some of Judas Priest's more commercial and pop-influenced releases -- he showed listeners another side of himself and demonstrated that he wasn't obligated to embrace fantasy metal 100 percent of the time.

1.Son Of A Gun
2.Tattooed Millionaire
3.Born in '58
4.Hell On Wheels
5.Gypsy Road
7.All The Young Dudes
8.Lickin' The Gun
9.Zulu Zulu
10.No Lies

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Bruce Dickinson: (1994) Balls To Picasso

Immediately following his departure from metal legends Iron Maiden, singer and jack of all trades Bruce Dickinson signed a new deal stateside to Mercury Records and went to work on his second solo effort. Notwithstanding some dreadful artwork, his Polygram debut, Balls to Picasso, is somewhat of a disappointment and, for the most part, an ill-conceived project. Eager to get away from the classic galloping we'll-march-to-the-war Maiden sound, the singer joins forces with a band by the name of Tribe of Gypsies. The band (which managed to generate quite a buzz on its own but alas never found a home for itself) features Roy Z, Dickinson's chief collaborator/songwriting partner for this album. Eddie jokes aside, if Dickinson wanted to get away from the classic Iron Maiden sound, he sure does a good job on this album. Unfortunately, the singer fails to come up with anything truly groundbreaking or even interesting here (save for the album closer, "Tears of a Dragon"). Balls to Picasso gets underway with the messy, seven-minute "Cyclops." Following it is "Hell No," which, again, makes a valid argument for the singer's newfound musical freedom and prerogative to shun a sound that he once helped create. Not only is "Hell No" not Maiden-ish at all, it gives way to the über-heavy, down-tuned rumblings of "Gods of War" -- which takes flight like some sort of ode to Pantera gone New Wave of British Heavy Metal. The end result? Nothing substantial. Maybe a good idea on paper but definitely lost somewhere along the way in the execution. Moving forward, "1000 Points of Light" is another faux pas. Nicking its main riff from, of all places, Living Colour's "Cult of Personality," the cut erupts into a bizarre Queensrÿche-meets-Prong chorus and bridge that leave one scratching his or her head. Only Dickinson's strong vocal delivery manages to salvage the song from being a complete disaster. Other cuts like "Laughing in the Hiding Bush" and the soft "Change of Heart" fare a little better. Bongos give way to the lyrically challenged "Shoot all the Clowns," which, stunningly, comes across like some sort of bad L.A. hair metal experiment meets "Welcome to the Jungle."

2.Hell No
3.Gods Of War
4.1.000 Points Of Light
5.Laughing In The Hiding
6.Change Of Heart
7.Shoot All The Clowns
9.Sacred Cowboys
10.Tears of The Dragon

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W.A.S.P.: (1986) Inside the Electric Circus

While W.A.S.P. remained a gimmick-heavy live act (around this time, Blackie Lawless had a codpiece that would shoot sparks!), they attempted to grow musically with each successive release -- most evidently beginning with 1986's Inside the Electric Circus. While Lawless was the band's main leader and songwriter from the beginning, he had even more of a say in the musical direction by switching to rhythm guitar from bass when original guitarist Randy Piper exited the band (ex-King Kobra member Johnny Rod joined on bass). By selecting a pair of early-'70s hard rock classics to cover -- Humble Pie's "I Don't Need No Doctor" and Uriah Heep's "Easy Living" -- it was clear that W.A.S.P. wanted their fans to pay more attention to the music. But it's not to say that the group completely abandoned their brash heavy metal roots -- the U.K. single "9.5.-N.A.S.T.Y." and the album-opening title track packed plenty of scream-along excitement. [The 1998 reissue contains a pair of B-sides previously unavailable on CD: "Flesh and Fire" and "D.B. Blues."] ...Greg Prato

1.The Big Welcome
2.Inside The Electric Circus
3.I Don't Need No Doctor
4.9.5 N.A.S.T.Y.
5.Restless Gypsy
6.Shoot From the Hip
7.I'm Alive
8.Easy Living
9.Sweet Cheetah
11.King Of Sodom and Gomorrah
12.The Rock Rolls On
13.Flesh and Fire (Bonus)
14.D.B. Blues (Bonus)

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