By Carl Begai
German a capella metal band Van Canto didn’t do themselves any favours kicking off the release of their fifth album, Dawn Of The Brave, with an oddball-titled single called ‘Badaboom’. Not because it’s a bad song – hell, fans of present day Manowar should be jealous – but because the band’s detractors are always seeking new ammunition for target practice. Van Canto are a thick-skinned sextet, however, and no strangers to people taking potshots at their brand of music. Eight years into their career, it’s fair to say the bitching and moaning from the outside fuels them as much as the accolades from their loyal fans.
“It’s been like that since the beginning of the band,” says vocalist Stefan Schmidt. “The only thing that’s changed is that the people who don’t like us have to admit that we’ve had some kind of success (laughs). The bad thing about it is that people who really don’t like us have gotten more personal in their reviews because they can’t understand how a band like Van Canto can exist for more than a couple years. I don’t think we have to justify ourselves anymore, but sometimes I have the feeling that even though we have a unique approach we often have to excuse ourselves for being unique. When I write songs I notice that I tend to sometimes do things that can cause controversy with certain people. Sometimes I think ‘No, you can’t do that because people will hate you for it…’ and then there’s another voice in my head saying ‘And that’s exactly why you should do it.’”
Which is probably why Van Canto haven’t turned out to be a flash in the pan; commitment coupled with being a healthy kind of stubborn.
“I recently did an interview with a big German magazine and the guy asked me what I say to people now that the joke is over. I asked him why is it that if an artist has a unique sound he or she or they can only make one album. There are so many metal bands that release 10 or 15 albums and they all sound the same, and they sound like other metal bands, but nobody asks them if the joke is over. I don’t know why they do that with Van Canto.”
Maybe that’s the difference between the open-minded professionals out there versus the kiddie journos who get offended by something they can’t wrap their brains around.
“If you put it that way I can live with it (laughs). We’re aware of the fact that a lot of the attraction Van Canto has is because of this gimmick, as some people call it, that we have. We talk to the people that come to our shows and we notice that when we go to the same town a second or third time there are always more and more people. Our music is different, and many people tell us they like us better live than on CD. It’s always great when a musician gets that kind of feedback.” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
Regardless of whether you like ‘em or don’t give a damn, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is a big deal. The two-headed troupe’s annual east and west coast road trips through North America – leading up to Christmas and beyond – are consistently ranked as top-grossing concert tours year after year, and the production seemingly gets bigger each time out. It’s fair to say that TSO has become a tradition for many a metal and/or music lover. If there’s one misfire in this success story, however, it’s the lack of attention to the European market. Not that they necessarily need the exposure, but given that the legendary Savatage is the foundation for everything TSO has become and Europe embraced Savatage with the equivalent of a bone-crushing bear hug early on, some folks figure the Orchestra owes those fans some attention. Thus, 2014 began (literally) with an exclusive performance at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on New Year’s Eve followed by a stripped down but still impressive European tour; only their second in a 15 year history as a live act. Guitarist Chris Caffery and drummer Jeff Plate sat down to discuss the stripped down TSO production when the band hit Nuremberg, Germany…
Jeff: “It’s very comfortable. We came over to Europe a few years ago with the Beethoven’s Last Night tour (in 2011) and it’s a great story, but I think some of it was too much for the European audiences. We had to trim that down quite a bit, and the Savatage element is much more present in the show this time. And for myself, being able to work with Chris, Johnny (Middleton/bass) and Al (Pitrelli/guitars) again is a blast. This is an arena show and we just happened to squeeze it into a theater.”
Chris: “The biggest difference for me is that I’m not nearly as tired as I am during the big production we do (laughs). We do one show a day and it’s stripped down, and we don’t have the wings that we have on the North American stage. The big stage has at least another 30 feet on each side, so you run the arena and do two shows a day. The European tour is more like doing the old Savatage concerts in many ways except the people are sitting. In a lot of ways it’s the same because I put my in-ears in and what I hear is the same as always. I don’t really hear a difference. The band is different in that I’ve got Johnny and Al there, which is always great. I usually play with Jeff and the singers rotate, so it’s not really that different of a TSO show for me.” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
During the last quarter of 2013 and into the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s North American tour, guitarist Chris Caffery took time out of his busy schedule to tease and please his fans with a few new songs released as digital singles. It was a long time in coming for Caffery’s diehard followers, who have been waiting for more music since his House Of Insanity record from 2009. The new tracks are a precursor to his forthcoming full length album – dubbed The Twisted Truth for the moment – and Caffery’s ongoing development as a do-it-yourself artist. As in, doing as much as possible on his own, creating a down-to-the-bone solo album in fact as well as name.
“I think I’ve grown a lot as a businessman and as a musician,” Caffery says of his solo career, which has been on the go since 2004. “I learned a lot of things that I don’t think I would have learned if I hadn’t done things on my own. You always respect where you are more when you go off and do things on your own. Now I’m able to approach writing and playing music more creatively. My singing has gotten a lot better, and that’s the cool thing about doing these new songs before the TSO tour. I had people listen to the songs and a lot of reactions were ‘That’s awesome! Who’s singing?’ (laughs). I know now when I do this stuff that my voice is at a level where it’s able to express what’s in my head. My voice has matured, and I’ve matured as a writer and a singer. I know that if I could have taught myself to sing when I was 20 I’d be headlining this arena myself (laughs). I thought singing was something you either had or you didn’t. I didn’t know you could train your voice, so I spent all those years looking for a singer that I already had.”
“People are always asking me about going out and doing a solo tour, but I have a very successful band that I tour with every year. I want to do solo shows, but to put it up and get it going is a lot of pressure. I know what Paul (O’Neill / TSO director and co-founder) deals with; everybody looks to you for everything. It can be stressful when you’re trying to go out there and play music and enjoy it. For me, it’s more important right now to be the artist just making the music. I’m going to finish my new record this year and I want it to be great. If there’s a demand for me to do shows I’ll approach that when the time comes. I’ve got my own studio, I’m doing it myself, and we’ll see where it goes from there. I just want to make a record that I’m really happy with.” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
There’s no doubt that the controversial firing of former Nightwish vocalist Anette Olzon in October 2012 made her out to be the bad guy, turning any press she does for her forthcoming solo album into a potential exercise in character assassination. It doesn’t help her situation in that the Nightwish camp has been quick to refute many of her recent accusations of backstabbing and mismanagement that have appeared online. Quite frankly, I was prepared to be stonewalled when asking questions about Nightwish due to the fact Olzon came across as a self-centered diva when she slammed the band for playing to a Denver, CO audience in 2012 with stand-in vocalists Elize Ryd (Amaranthe) and Alissa White-Gluz (The Agonist) after she fell ill. Turns out I was way off the mark and had to give Olzon the benefit of the doubt.
Thus, in the interest of giving her solo album Shine a fair shake we’re getting the Nightwish debacle out of the way first, to be followed soon by a full story on the new record.
Rather than dig for the scurvy details and assorted dirt kicked up before and after her firing, the focus is on Olzon getting booted in the middle of the North American tour for Imaginaerum. It’s not a move most bands can afford to make in today’s music industry economy, sure as hell not without a back-up plan. And yet, 48 hours after Olzon was cut loose former After Forever vocalist Floor Jansen had taken over her post on stage, becoming the band’s permanent singer less than a year later.
“It’s hard for me to say why the firing happened when it did because I don’t really know what happened behind my back,” says Olzon. “I think there were some thing happening that I didn’t know about. It has become clearer to me now that they had some sort of a plan when I told them I was pregnant. I actually think they had some suspicions I was pregnant during the summer festivals, so I think they may have had a back-up plan.”
Olzon pegs the band’s reaction to her pregnancy as the primary reason for the falling out. She also claims Jansen wasn’t as much of a last minute consideration for the Nightwish line-up as people think, albeit in a temporary capacity.
“We had some discussions during the tour in America about how to cover the remaining gigs for the tours that were coming up, and we did have something of an argument before that. I didn’t want to have a substitute singer in the band, I wanted to do the South American shows. I would have been too pregnant to go to Australia so I wanted to push the dates back, but Tuomas (Holopainen / keyboards, founder) didn’t want that. Discussions about a substitute came up and at first I was like ‘Yeah, well…. okay…’ but when they mentioned Floor it was an automatic ‘No’ from me. I didn’t think it was a good idea because I knew what would happen; I knew the fans would love Floor because she’s a metal singer and I’m a pop singer, and I wanted to keep my job. Because I couldn’t do the Australian tour, I think that’s when they started thinking about a new singer. We had a bit of an argument, then I got ill, and after that…. I don’t know if they planned this.” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
It’s hard to believe the cartoon that is MySpace was once the first stop in cutting edge social media. As of 2005 is was a place for musicians big and small to get the word out about their music and assorted projects, and it was around that time bassist/producer Jeff Pilson (Foreigner, ex-Dokken) first drew attention to a new band he was working with called Benedictum. He compared vocalist Veronica Freeman to a female Ronnie James Dio, and the release of the band’s debut, Uncreation (2006), proved that Pilson wasn’t blowing smoke. Almost 10 years later Benedictum have hammered out their fourth album, Obey, and although it’s reminiscent of their early work the creative team behind the music has changed considerably. Only Freeman and guitarist Pete Wells remain of the original line-up and Pilson turns up only as a collaborator, with John Herrera now in the producer’s chair, but the fans aren’t complaining judging by the Obey reviews making the rounds.
“We had asked Jeff to produce the last album (Dominion – 2011) but it didn’t work out with his schedule,” Freeman reveals, adding that Herrera did a fantastic job on Obey. “We had a couple conversations with Jeff and he promised he wouldn’t let us down next time around, because we really are like family, but he was getting these musical opportunities that he couldn’t turn down. I know Jeff well enough to know that in his heart he really wanted to do this album, but this is business as well as friendship and I simply didn’t have the money to pay him. I can’t compete against these other people. I really wanted Jeff involved in some way, though. Once we started putting these songs together and they took on their own little lives, we went out to his place for two days for pre-production and rearranging things. The intensity of Jeff Pilson when you’re working with him is insane, and he really brought some of these songs to life, like ‘Retrograde’. He was involved on the last album on only one song, ‘Epsilon’, but you can kind of tell when it’s a Jeff thing.”
Production of Obey fell into the capable hands of John Herrera, and the results are in-your-face impressive. Loud, obnoxious, not too polished and not too dark.
“We needed someone local, and Rikard (Stjernquist/drums) worked with John before. I had to get some stuff done with guest vocals on another album, so we tried it out with John just to make we were going to get along. It worked out well. You’re right on the money with the production, and Rikard kept telling me I should be more excited bout it because of the production alone. He spent a lot of his time listening to the first two albums to really grasp Jeff’s mindset when he produced them, and then he put his own spin on it. He did an amazing job.”
In spite of the repeated line-up changes, which have been in full swing since the Seasons Of Tragedy album (2008), Benedictum’s sound has remained traditional old school metal thanks to the long time Freeman-Wells writing team.
“Yeah, Pete and I did most of the songwriting for Obey and it’s always kind of been that way,” says Freeman. “He’s that musical hamster in the spinning wheel (laughs); Pete is always churning out new stuff. He’ll send me little snippets of things, then we’ll get together and jam at rehearsal. And he’ll always try to sneak stuff in and waits for my reaction. That’s how we usually work. Even when we went to Jeff doing Obey, the basic parts were already there. We’ve been working together for over 15 years, so it’s hard for me to imagine working with someone else. When it comes to songwriting we roll in a certain way.” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
On January 10th, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra kicked off a short European tour featuring a stripped down version of their monstrous annual North American road trip. It was only the troupe’s second time through Europe – their first time being March 2011 – and I have it on good authority that it wasn’t their last.
I had the pleasure of attending the January 20th show in Nuremberg, Germany and I was NOT disappointed. The performers, the pacing of the show, the pyro, lots of Savatage tunes in the set, and easily one of the finest crews around… it all made for one huge highlight.
So, a picture gallery featuring some half-decent shots below. I’m saving the totally decent ones for a book….
By Carl Begai
In 2011, Iced Earth said goodbye to fan-favoured vocalist Matt Barlow (again). A potentially disastrous situation for a band that had clawed and carved its way to something pretty damn close to the top over two decades, but they were given a second chance (again) with the entrance of Into Eternity frontman Stu Block. His Iced Earth debut album, Dystopia, went over a storm compared to its cold and dense predecessors – Framing Armageddon (’07), The Crucible Of Man (’08) – and the world tour that followed cemented Block’s position as the band’s singer. Iced Earth’s new album, Plagues Of Babylon, doesn’t exactly pick up where Dystopia left off in that it comes off as darker and more aggressive – and hell, more epic – but it most certainly matches Dystopia for intensity and being a solid no-bull fan friendly package.
“Sometimes you hit things right on the mark for the fanbase, other times you do what you feel like as an artist as much as for the fans,” says guitarist/founder Jon Schaffer. “I don’t think it’s a contrived thing. This album is a little bit more epic compared to Dystopia, but the writing period was the same length as it was for Dystopia. I was going through a very difficult time in my personal life and a lot of shit happened, but somehow I was able to put together a really strong record in spite of everything that was going on. With Dystopia, I just felt that was the way to go and I don’t think Plagues Of Babylon is too far from that direction. I think Plagues Of Babylon has a couple more songs that are a bit more epic in terms of the writing, sure, but we stayed on the course set with Dystopia.”
“I produced this album, and one of the things I wanted to do was make it heavier and give it a live feel,” he continues. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t over-produced. I got really good takes out of everybody but I wasn’t so anal as to make sure that everything was 100% perfectly in tune and perfectly on time. That’s a trap you fall into as a producer. I wanted to capture the essence and energy of a band that’s been touring its ass off and I think I accomplished that.” (continue reading…)
By Carl Begai
This interview took place towards the end of Kamelot’s 2013 European tour in support of their latest album, Silverthorn. By all accounts – band, fans, YouTube footage – it was a successful run that saw the band play to packed houses every night. The show on this particular night, in Munich, went off without a hitch as far as anyone on the floor could tell, with Kamelot attacking the stage like the seasoned veterans they are, playing to the audience rather than merely for them, accompanied by one of the most impressive lightshows ever seen in a rock club (seriously… and without pyro). It was a far cry from the band’s first European tour – their first road trip ever, in fact – back in 1998 with Elegy, which showcased a band that was understandably green performing to half empty rooms. A potentially demoralizing experience on one hand, but the taste was enough to make Kamelot want to push forward. Success at a level where the band became a day job was along time coming, but it’s a testament to what can be accomplished when you focus on and devote your time and energy to something you really want.
“You don’t have any pictures from that ’98 tour, do you?” laughs guitarist Thomas Youngblood.
Actually, I do. I’ll wait to be tapped for the Kamelot biography to publish them.
“When you get started you want to be like Iron Maiden, but then you start realizing how difficult that is,” says Youngblood with regards to the band’s success. “But the way things are nowadays in the industry, there aren’t a lot of bands that can get to that level. I think we’re fortunate we’ve been able to grow and maintain this band over the past 15 years. That’s pretty amazing. I think it’s a testament to working hard and making some smart decisions, and having killer fans.”
Kamelot’s biggest test came with the surprise departure of vocalist Roy Khan in September 2010, mere days before the Poetry For The Poisoned tour was due to begin. The band downplayed the seriousness of the situation at the time – they could realistically have lost their collective shirt financially due to pre-tour expenses and unfulfilled contracts – and managed to save face by finding the best possible replacement for Khan in Swedish singer Tommy Karevik.
“We didn’t think anything bad about that in terms of coming out of it intact,” Youngblood insists. “I’ve seen a lot of bands do that successfully, and I think a lot of people forget how many acts have actually had to do that. We’ve grown into different territories since then. We played Australia for the first time with Silverthorn, we’ve done different parts of Asia like Korea and Taiwan, and the US is a much bigger market for us now.” (continue reading…)
So, once again, a wrap-up of the Hots and Nots from the year gone by courtesy of my day job at BW&BK. The whole rundown of Brave Embarrassments, Best Concerts, assorted predictions and pleas to stop music industry stupidity can all be found here.
Below you’ll find my Top 10 list of favourite albums of 2013 and a long-winded summary of why the year didn’t suck for music… at least in my world.
Top Ten – 2013
1) ANNIHILATOR – Feast (UDR)
2) CHILDREN OF BODOM – Halo Of Blood (Nuclear Blast)
3) STRYPER – No More Hell To Pay (Frontiers)
4) QUEENSRŸCHE – s/t (Century Media)
5) HEADSTONES – Love & Fury (Universal/Frostbyte)
6) DUSKMACHINE – Duskmachine (Massacre)
7) THE NEW BLACK – III: Cut Loose (AFM)
8) JAMES LABRIE – Impermanent Resonance (InsideOut)
9) THRAWSUNBLAT – Wanderer On The Continent Of Saplings (Ignifera Records)
10) HELLOWEEN – Straight Out Of Hell (Sony)
By Carl Begai
Reviewing a power metal band is no more rocket scientific than the music itself. Babble on about divine guitar shred, godlike vocals, throw around terms like “old school” and “traditional” and you’re done. And while this formula has been applied to Primal Fear in the past, to do so in discussing their new outing, Delivering The Black, would be a huge disservice to the band and the fans. Primal Fear is one of those rare acts that, 10 studio albums into their career, are more vital and vibrant than they were at the beginning, and anyone that’s been following them since 1998 will have one hell of a time arguing the point in 2014. Picking up where Unbreakable (2012) left off and leaving said record choking in the dust, Delivering The Black is a brilliant energetic romp through familiar territory on a level that will make it a go-to classic of the genre 20 years from now.
Delivering The Black grabs hold immediately with ‘King For A Day’, seals the deal with ‘Rebel Faction’, and digs its claws so damn deep it’s a shock, especially if you’re expecting ho-hum power metal-isms. The guitar riffs are huge at the hands of Magnus Karlsson, Alex Beyrodt and founder/producer/bassist Mat Sinner, while drummer Randy Black delivers some of the best steel backbone work of his career (‘King For A Day’, ‘Inseminoid’, ‘Rebel Faction’, ‘Delivering The Black’). As for vocalist Ralf Scheepers…. pffffff… the man has come a LONG way since his days with Gamma Ray and Primal Fear’s early albums. He still has one of the best high-pitched shrieks this side of Tim “Ripper Owens, Rob Halford and Kai Hansen, and his low-end voice now boasts grit, balls and character that sets him well apart from his aforementioned peers. Fact is it’s hard to pick Scheepers’ crowning moment on Delivering The Black because there are so damn many of ‘em (although ‘Rebel Faction’ is probably the best track to sum up his overall performance). (continue reading…)