SEBASTIEN – Tears Of White Roses

white roses

Sebastien is a band/project based in the Czech Republic, specialising in metal with many symphonic and progressive influences. Their press release claims their music is a breakthrough in progressive and symphonic music, but with regard to their chosen musical field, it’s a  struggle to hear anything that doesn’t sound like a bunch of safe, tried-and-tested ideas.

There was always hope that the roll-call of guest performers may go some way towards making this a worthwhile listen, but sadly, their performances aren’t anything special either. Take for example the guest spots by Amanda Somerville – on ‘Femme Fatale’ she gets no more than a few lines in the spotlight while on ‘Black Rose Part II’ her potentially very strong harmony vocal is left hovering somewhere in the back of the mix, somewhere behind Cornerstone’s Doogie White. Thankfully, on this big, theatrical ballad White’s vocals are strong enough to carry the piece (just as they had been on the previous ‘Black Rose Part I’). More should have been asked of Somerville, though, especially since her voice shines among the barrage of male metal voices.

‘Dorian’ and ‘Fields of Chlum (1866 A.D.)’ feature vocals by Rhapsody of Fire and Vision Divine vocalist Fabio Lione. His slightly more restrained delivery is well suited to both pieces. While a (far, far too loud) church organ dominates ‘Dorian’, a chorus where Lione harmonises with Roland Grapow provides what is easily this album’s best moment. Both vocalists are in fine form, and the melody itself is far more memorable than anything else here. ‘Fields’ is a power ballad, and while it contains a similar amount of power, thanks to a decent mid-pace, it doesn’t end up as stifling as most of Sebastien’s material.

‘Voices In Your Heart’ (featuring Masterplan’s Mike DiMeo and Roland Grapow) offers plenty in the way of speed, but far too much macho posturing and relentless double-bass drums make the end result rather unpleasurable. ‘Silver Rain’ (featuring Firewind’s Apollo Papathanasio) is slightly better as it carries a great down-tuned guitar riff riff in places and a great bass chug. The bas could have been put to far better use, mind; the upfront playing disappears after the intro. Once Papathanasio starts to sing, though, any promise is swept away. His loud, heavily accented vocals (delivered at full bore) are just too full on – and not especially tuneful.

The couple of performances featuring Fabio Lione are the only numbers preventing ‘Tears of White Roses’ from being completely forgettable. A couple of the guitar solos are decent and Roland Grapow’s production is solid, but since Sebastien have favoured complexity over memorable material and obvious hooks, they’re never going to be able to compete with Euro heavyweights such as Jorn Lande or Arjen Lucassen when it comes to this kind of thing.

December 2010

DEVIN TOWNSEND – Ziltoid The Omniscient


Despite lacking warmth and almost any real human qualities, Devin Townsend’s ‘Ocean Machine: Biomech’ album is a wondrous piece of work. It has a cold, multi-layered stylishness which holds the listeners’ attention over multiple listens. In some ways, whether you like it or not is immaterial: nobody could deny its style came as a surprise after his previous work with the subtle-as-a-breezeblock Strapping Young Lad.

Over the next few years, Devin continued to release extremely heavy albums with SYL in tandem with a solo career, all with varying degrees of quality. Stylistically, ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ probably has most in common with his solo album ‘Physicist’, which although credited as a solo work, featured all the SYL members. It’s a step up from that, though, since ‘Physicist’ didn’t really highlight any of Devin’s progressive styles. Although mostly difficult listening, this album brings together both sides of Devin’s work properly for the first time.

A concept album, named after its central figure, ‘Ziltoid…’ concerns a rather malevolent being’s search for a perfect cup of coffee. If he doesn’t get one in five Earth minutes, everyone will die. Move over blind pinball kid! Move over Broadway spray-paint artist castrated by aliens! We have a new King of Ridiculous Concepts. There’s a huge difference between this and many other bloated concept albums though – Dev isn’t really expecting us to take it seriously.

The album has such density. The rhythm style throughout a bulk of the material makes it more comparable to SYL than anything else, but there’s still a wedge of sound which has much in common with Townsend’s lighter work, even though his progressive styles have been largely pushed aside.

The opening intro features Ziltoid making his request for coffee, coupled with death metal style grunting vocals; ‘By Your Command’ sets the pace for most of the album with heavy double bass drums (which are almost certainly programmed) underlying multi-tracked guitars and multi-tracked, sometimes angry vocals. ‘Ziltoidia Attaxx!!’ takes this approach and pushes it farther; its extra edge and Dev’s vocal style make this easily comparable to later Strapping Young Lad work (y’know, not quite the full on pneumatic road drill of ‘Heavy as a Very Heavy Thing’, but still bloody heavy by most sane people’s standards). On the chorus, the metal style vocals give way to comic falsetto. Within the mass of noise, some of the guitar work is amazing, although very little sounds natural due to Devin’s heavy use of pedals and phasers (I don’t really understand the technical side, so you’ll have to hear it yourselves). The programmed electronic drums towards the closing section are mastered loudly, replicating the sound of Ziltoid’s laser guns attacking Earth (it sounds really stupid when you write it all down, eh? Thanks Devin.)

‘Color Your World’ at first, sounds like SYL at their best, but with extra keyboards and Devin using the vocal style most associated with his ‘Terria’ album. There’s a good musical idea in here, but the pounding and density (there’s that word again, but no others fit the bill as effectively) masks any of the underlying subtleties. The mid section is pure, early SYL – I don’t think I need to elaborate! In a twist, the closing section features the gentlest music the album has to offer. While it has many elements in common with ‘Ocean Machine’, ‘Accelerated Evolution’ and ‘Synchestra’, it makes little impact after the noisy first half. …And even if it did, it would likely be ruined by Ziltoid shouting his name mid way – just in case you’d forgotten what this was all about.

Most of ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ follows similar musical patterns to those featured the first couple of tracks. There are a couple of exceptions, however: ‘Solar Winds’, sounds like something from ‘Terria’. It’s not as classic as any of that though, since Dev pushes his voice into slightly theatrical territory, sounding like someone putting on an amusing ‘heavy rock’ voice, although I’m not sure this element is supposed to be comical. I’d like to tell you the slow, chugging riffs make up for that…but they don’t.

‘Hyperdrive’ is classic. It’s nowhere near as claustrophobic as most of ‘ZTO’. It sounds like an odd cousin to some of ‘Ocean Machine’ and naturally, that pleases me. Devin’s vocals – again multi-tracked and treated – are much gentler here than the rest of the album. ‘The Greys’ is the best song here, without question. It’s one of those moments (and most of Devin’s solo albums feature one), where he taps into his most melodic side: that shining moment that’s not prog metal as such; certainly not AOR and not quite pomp. It’s closest to ‘Life’ (from ‘Ocean Machine’) and ‘Slow Me Down’ (from ‘Accelerated Evolution’). It’s still heavier than those songs, though – and its melodies are buried under a fair amount of sludge – so don’t get too excited. For those of you who came looking for ‘Ocean Machine’ and ‘Synchestra’ style material, this track will please you too. ‘N9’ is also lighter, but the amount of layers and overdubs used makes hard listening.

If you’re a fan of Devin’s ‘Ocean Machine’ or ‘Synchestra’ styles, then on the whole, ‘Ziltoid The Omniscient’ likely won’t do it for you. If you enjoy Devin’s angry, more extreme metal tendencies, strap yourselves in. It’s brash, it’s stupid…and most importantly, it’s unmistakably Devin. Pomposity and aggression coupled with a sense of humour sets this apart from anything Townsend has attempted previously – the only worry is that the silly concept gives it a shorter shelf life than some of his more serious works.

Watch Ziltoid’s transmissions:
Part 1 here
Part 2 here
Part 3 here
Part 4 here

January 2010

OFFTOPIC – Backstage EP


Generally, Spanish bands don’t tend to get much coverage in the UK. However, this progressive metal band from Madrid are the second Spanish band to get featured at Real Gone, since the rather groovy Idealipsticks received a review of their album ‘Radio Days’ in June 2010.

This third release by OffTopic marks a turning point in their career. Their first two releases (released independently in Spain) feature the band performing their material in Spanish. 2010’s ‘Backstage’ EP finds the band attempting to broaden their listening audience by releasing re-recorded versions of songs from their second album, ‘A Fuego’, with the lyrics performed in English. Since it’s unlikely you’ll have heard OffTopic previously, this is undoubtedly a good move.

From the beginning of this EP, guitarist Toni Sánchez-Gil has a strong presence, his heavy and chugging style (in a typical approach for the genre) provides more than enough for OffTopic. One of his heaviest riffs lies at the centre of ‘Mask’, where, combined with Cristian Millán on drums and José Luis López on bass, there’s more than enough musical weight. Vocalist Rosa Ibáñez’s has a style which is somewhere between striking and slightly harsh. Her voice has strength throughout most of the EP, but it’s an untrained style. That said, it’s interesting to hear a voice which hasn’t fallen into the trap of studio perfection and tweaking of any kind, even if it isn’t always the easiest to listen to. ‘Mask’ presents her voice at its hardest, though – it seems slightly more at ease on the other numbers.

Similarly heavy, Cristian Millán’s drums are the main focus of ‘Game Over’. There’s very little here you won’t have heard from prog-metal bands before (particularly those of European origin), however, this track features one of Rosa’s best vocals and a rather pleasing guitar solo, as well as a classic sounding and very welcome melodic chorus. Driven by a solid riff, full of downstrokes and the occasional horsey squeal, ‘How Many Times’ is a great Euro-metal offering. Utilising another melodic chorus, it’s similar to ‘Game Over’, but features a soft bridge section where Sánchez-Gil gets to bring his quiet ringing tone back to the fore, before turning in a decent guitar solo. I’d really like to hear Jorn Lande cover this…although it’s unlikely he will.

‘Because of You’ – the EP’s big rock ballad – provides a change in pace. Sánchez-Gil’s guitar work adopts a perfect, ringing quality during the verses, before reverting to the usual havy riffing on the chorus. During the quiet verses, the band is accompanied by Nexx’s keyboard player Fran Rodríguez; his keyboard work is incredibly understated, sounding at first like woodwind instruments. Although appearing as a guest, Rodríguez proved very important to the release of this EP, having provided help with the English translations as well as arranging a reprise of ‘Because of You’ – a reprise which focuses on the song’s softest elements. The guitars are eschewed completely in favour of Rodríguez’s beautifully played piano part.

Stepping aside from their progressive influences, ‘Time Flies’ features OffTopic in a traditional metal guise. While the music isn’t always as complex here, the slightly faster and far more direct approach suits Rosa’s voice. Coupling a hard vocal with a riff which sounds rather like Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’, this track proves that sometimes a tried and tested classic rock formula is hard to beat.

‘Backstage’ features some top notch musicianship and it’s undeniable that making the transition to English lyrics will only benefit the band. If you’re a fan of progressive metal, you’ll certainly want to give this a listen – especially as OffTopic have kindly made it available to everyone for free!

Visit OffTopic at MySpace here.


September 2010

8-POINT ROSE – Primigenia

8 point

8-Point Rose is a band which rose from the ashes of Evermoore, a Swedish metal band who’d previously produced a couple of demos and toured Europe for seven years. The twin lead guitars, combined with the heavy drumming and the melodic, yet very 80s metal vocal stylings present during this album’s opening number tells you everything you need to know about power metal band 8-Point Rose almost in a heartbeat. Aside from a few extreme vocal growls here and there, they don’t especially deviate from their core sound during ‘Primigenia’s ten songs – but on the basis of this debut album, there’s very little reason why they should.

Between the bombast and heaviness of that opening number, ‘Resolve’, there are some great twin lead guitar parts. Those combined with a strong lead vocal and hook should be enough to convince you that ‘Primigenia’ has plenty in its favour. The chugging guitars and accompanying keyboard riff which opens ‘Out of the Shadows’ could suggest the band also have a liking for a lot of European progressive metal, though it’s only here ‘Primigenia’ lends itself to anything in that genre; once Marcus Nygren’s vocals put in an appearance, it’s obvious where 8-Point Rose’s strongest musical loyalties lie, since this number is another solid piece of melodic power metal. While, at first, it appears this track could be heavier than the opener, the chorus has a huge hook and is very accessible – a contender for the album’s stand out track.

‘Relentless’ shows the band in a slightly heavier mood. A track completely driven by Johannes Timander’s double bass drumming and the dual vocal featuring Marcus Nygren’s melodic wail contrasted Adam Johannson’s metal growl, it’s a number which brings more extreme influences to the fore; it doesn’t sacrifice melody completely – it’s just very heavy! ‘The Shadow’ is more in the Swedish melodic metal camp, complete with a huge chorus which makes best use of Nygren’s voice. Again, the more extreme vocal from Johannson makes an appearance during its mid section, though this is brief and doesn’t detract from a great melody and hook. And if you’re into big choruses, then ‘When Chaos Rules Our Lives’ will certainly appeal. While parts of the song are a little too aggressive, the chorus is fantastic. It has a very Swedish feel (and for those of you who’ve been into melodic rock for years, you’ll know exactly what I mean) which harks back to the late 80s/early 90s.

‘Endless Rage’ is also recommended listening, since it showcases everything which makes 8 Point Rose decent. The main thrust of the song comes from its power metal groove, which features extensive use of double bass drums and a solid lead vocal, but it’s the mid section which provides most interest. After a gentle interlude, the listener is treated to a gorgeous solo – long, soaring notes at first, before breaking into a superb twin harmony followed by a great metal solo which remains tuneful and never resorts to outright shredding and showiness.

After opening with a great twin lead which is slightly reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s more epic moments (during their ‘Seventh Son’ period, mainly), ‘The Shadow’ doesn’t quite live up to promise as it slips into grandiosity with a slightly overwrought vocal. This could have been forgiven with a more interesting musical approach, but up against the rest of ‘Primigenia’, this is very pedestrian. It’s with moments such as this I understand why 8-Point Rose have been likened to other power metal bands like Dream Evil. Generally speaking, they’re much better than that, though, as most of this album shows.

The closing number, ‘Name of Time’ features the band at their absolute heaviest. Here, 8 Point Rose channel the more extreme parts of their sound. Adam Johannson contributes more vocals, so that alone is going to ensure it’s harder nature. I’m not especially a fan of his aggressive vocal style, but generally it’s not overused on most of the album and – as said previously – it’s always balanced by Nygren’s traditional metal vocal. The aggressiveness of this track makes it the album’s weakest in terms of both melody and structure, but since most of ‘Primigenia’ is so strong, it doesn’t matter too much.

Great songs, solid sound and a decent production make this debut by 8-Point Rose one of 2010’s best melodic/power metal releases. If you like your metal with a huge sound and a European slant, you need to grab this.

June 2010

IRON MAIDEN – Powerslave

By the time this album was released in September 1984, Bruce Dickinson was settled in his place as Iron Maiden’s frontman, having replaced Paul Di’Anno over two years previously. He’d also proved to be a great songwriter, as evidenced by ‘Revelations’ (from the band’s 1984 album ‘Piece of Mind’). Nicko McBrain had replaced Clive Burr in December 1982 and he too seemed comfortable in his role as the new drummer. ‘Powerslave’ was the first album released by the band to feature the same line-up as the preceding offering, so it’s unsurprising the band sounded stronger and more confident than ever before.

Beginning with ‘Aces High’, the band sounds truly alive. Fast paced with Steve Harris’s trusty, galloping basslines, this track is an archetypal Maiden number, it tells the tale of a fight between British fighter pilots and the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Similarly inspired by true events, ‘2 Minutes To Midnight’ (a Bruce Dickinson/Adrian Smith co-write) features a lyrical theme about the Doomsday clock; specifically it’s reaching close to midnight after both the then Soviet Union and the USA tested H-bombs within months of each other. These two tracks were released as singles to promote the album and are among the band’s strongest songs and possibly explain why Iron Maiden are often thought to be more sophisticated than many of their contemporaries. ‘Back In The Village’ is a sequel of sorts to ‘Number of the Beast’s ‘The Prisoner’. While this album offers much better songs (notably in the songs which follow and the two singles), this song’s energy makes it stand up and demand attention. It’s not Maiden’s best song, but certainly not their worst by a long stretch.

The title cut shows a maturity rarely seen in Maiden’s previous work. Its Egyptian theme both musically and lyrically provide the album with something accessible and striking, with a stylish approach not traditionally associated with anything NWOBHM-related at that point. Both this number and ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ push the boundaries of 80s metal into new horizons. ‘Rime’ is a thirteen minute epic: on the surface, all of Maiden’s previous musical signatures are here – most notably the galloping rhythms, Bruce’s unmistakable voice with its siren-wail, and a knack for story-telling within the songs. Between the twin lead guitars and sheer power, it features a slow, atmospheric mid-section featuring a reading from Coleridge’s poem of the same name. Maybe it is a little pretentious, yes, but you’ve got to applaud them for branching out from their tried and tested musical traits. It truly raises the musical stakes.

Very few albums are perfect; ‘Powerslave’ is no exception: Its main flaw is that it sags in the middle (or the end of the first side, if you originally had this on vinyl). Firstly, the instrumental number ‘Losfer Words (Big ’Orra)’ has a decent drum groove from Nicko, but as is often the case with instrumentals, this feels like filler. And secondly, okay, Bruce Dickinson may be a championship level fencer, but surely two songs about swordsmanship is one too many? While ‘Flash of the Blade’ (written by Dickinson) and ‘The Duellists’ (Harris) are musically strong, their themes of valour and honour seem to wear a little thin by the end – especially so, considering they’re sequenced next to each other.

Rather interestingly, given these potential weaknesses, I’ll still tell you that ‘Powerslave’ is my favourite Maiden LP (and has been since release) and with good reason: there are moments which are far more adventurous then Maiden’s previous couple of outings. I love the way they took a gamble and went for something really extravagant in ‘…Ancient Mariner’. Whether they knew they were on to something special at the time, I don’t know – but with hindsight it is pretty special, as this is an album which could be seen as being responsible for starting the progressive metal subgenre.

February 2010