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By Carl Begai

Nightwish keyboardist/founder Tuomas Holopainen’s first official solo album, Music Inspired By The Life And Times Of Scrooge, isn’t metal by any means. The record is full blown big screen soundtrack music, which falls directly in line with Holopainen’s trademark songwriting over the last several years. The fact that its focus is the comic book character Scrooge McDuck in a book penned by artist Don Rosa, on the other hand, is not what one might expect from the man who turned female operatic vocals into a metaldom staple and crossed over into movie-making with the Nightwish epic from 2011, Imaginaerum. Holopainen is unashamed by his pet project and very proud of how it turned out; if the music convinces some fans to go out and pick up the book that inspired him, so much the better.

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“It’s been stated pretty clearly from the start that this is a marginal solo album that has nothing to do with metal or Nightwish,” says Holopainen. “It hasn’t been that big of a surprise to people. The biggest surprise seems to be why I’m being so childish (laughs). Of course, that can be expected if you choose to do and album based on a children’s comic book. It’s just ignorance though, because people don’t know what they’re talking about.”

If you’re a comic book geek you can appreciate the lengths Holopainen has gone to in bringing the Scrooge stories to life, having taken time away from his world famous day job. he makes no secret of the fact that he made the album to satisfy himself and nobody else.

“I wanted to make an album that would do these beautiful stories justice, and an album that I’d care to listen to myself. The music came out incredibly easy. I think it was probably, if not the easiest, one of the easiest albums I’ve ever produced because whenever I read this wonderful book my head is filled with music immediately. It was all about channelling it and getting it out, finding the right arrangements and the right instruments to perform it. I’ve had the dream of doing this soundtrack since 1999, so it’s about time that it saw daylight.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Cluttered as the metal scene is with female-fronted symphonic metal bands, news that Delain has a new slab of metal to offer isn’t likely to burn up the hype lines. Not until word on The Human Contradiction truly gets out. The fact they’re Dutch doesn’t help matters given their Netherlands is home to much bigger names of the genre such as Epica, Within Temptation, and former After Forever vocalist Floor Jansen who went off to join a little band called Nightwish. As vocalist Charlotte Wessels puts it, however, Delain is a very stubborn band, and although they’ve been on the bottom end of the ladder since their 2006 debut, Lucidity, it hasn’t discouraged them from pushing forward. The Human Contradiction marks their biggest step thus far, up and over the metal microscope and those ready to dismiss Delain without even hearing a note.

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Still, the comparisons to bigger and badder female fronted bands must be a pain in the ass.

“It comes with its challenges because we’ve been compared to Within Temptation forever, which is very natural because their sound is in our DNA,” says Charlotte. “Our keyboardist Martijn (Westerholtis one of the main songwriters in Delain and used to be a member of Within Temptation. But, in general, those comparisons and connections have done more for us rather than being an obstacle because, let’s be honest, our first record was a studio record featuring lots of guest musicians. I think a lot of people picked up that record because there was a guest on it they liked, so it is difficult when you face certain competition. In our case, though, we have a lot to be grateful for, so I choose not to ponder over that too much.”

The Human Contradiction finds Delain in what is probably best position of their career. Signed to Napalm Records, they paid their dues in a big way leading up to and following the release of their previous album, We Are The Others (2012). Trying to follow the updates on said album was a confusing exercise, and it sounded like Delain was on their way to being crushed by music industry politics. Charlotte admits it was a painful rough patch for the band.

“When we started working on We Are The Others we were on Roadrunner, but in the middle of that Roadrunner got sold to Warner. We didn’t choose to be with them and they didn’t choose to have us on their roster, and because some people that we worked with at Roadrunner were still with the company we were basically working with two different teams. There were all kinds of ideas and opinions coming in from both sides and we’re a pretty stubborn band, so we didn’t let any of them steer us away from what we wanted to do. Continue Reading

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.

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“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…

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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

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.

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“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

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)

Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Primal Fear’s brand of power metal will never be regarded as competition against bands like Nightwish, Dream Theater or Soilwork. Nor will their new album Delivering The Black be considered a departure from the material they’ve released 15+ years and 10 albums into their career. You’d be hard pressed to argue, however, that Primal Fear haven’t evolved by leaps and bounds since their 1998 self-titled debut. The new album’s lead-off track ‘King For A Day’ on its own is enough to push the point home that Primal Fear in is a much stronger and far more aggressive animal going in to 2014. Listen to Delivering The Black as a whole and it’s no small wonder the band is sharing if not outright stealing the spotlight from their power metal peers these days.

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“I’m very happy with it,” Sinner says of Delivering The Black, soft spoken as always. “There are subjects on the album that I like more than what we did before, and that’s important for me because if there’s no evolution in the band and no difference between albums I wouldn’t be pleased. Mostly the evolution is in the songwriting and production, and it definitely shows. I think Unbreakable (from 2012) was the most successful Primal Fear album worldwide, so it wasn’t the point to change the style of music or re-invent Primal Fear with a different approach. The next step after Unbreakable was to make this kind of music, which the fans love, even better. We worked hard on the guitar parts because the guitars are the main instruments in Primal Fear, pushing Randy (Black/drums) to a new level, and making Ralf (Scheepers/vocals) better than he ever was. Those were our targets.”

Sinner makes no bones about Unbreakable being in the band’s rear view mirror while they were putting Delivering The Black together. This self-imposed pressure paid off in the end judging by reactions from the press and the folks in charge of deciding when and how (and if) the album is promoted.

“Unbreakable was great in our view and in the eyes of the fans. Even our record company (Frontiers), which is more into melodic rock, was totally enthusiastic about the new album. And our Germany / Austria / Switzerland distributor, Soulfood – which are three very important territories for us because we sell a lot of records there – they were totally blown away and convinced the record company to produce some special limited edition formats this time. Everyone has been really surprised about the sound, the power and the energy on the album. Their reactions proved that we had the right vision and that we’re on the right track with the new record. So basically, the business people think we’ve delivered a better album than Unbreakable.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Hamilton, Ontario-based Varga’s 1991 debut Multiple Wargasms was and remains so under the radar that the YouTube legions have yet to pick up on it. The band’s major minor label debut Prototype from ’94 made a huge splash for a band that had come seemingly out of nowhere, while the ’95 follow-up, Oxygen, somewhat ironically took the wind out of their sails and saw Varga fade away. Eighteen years of silence have come to an unexpected end with the return of Varga’s original line-up and Part One of a two part comeback entitled Enter The Metal. For those that remember the band fondly, you’re in for a surprise. For the newbies, call this an introduction to some more unique metal Made In Canada.

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“A few years ago I had the idea of getting the guys back together just to jam,” says vocalist/bassist Joe Varga. “We went at it and started playing some of the older pre-Prototype songs, the more speed metal progressive stuff. The material on Enter The Metal is the music we created from ’89 – ’91 and all the songs have been totally reworked. The album is definitely heavier and more progressive than Prototype and Oxygen, but this is what we were doing before those albums came out. I think this type of music is more widespread these days. I find a lot more bands are doing this sort of music now compared to back then.”

“I think it was just a natural thing,” Joe says of going from jamming to hitting the studio. “It just felt right to take the next step. We wanted to record these songs properly, with really good gear. It’s a two part album; the first part is Enter The Metal, the second part is Return Of The Metal which will be out in the spring. These songs were never recorded using high quality equipment, so we decided that if we want to compete with the big boys we have to make the songs sound stellar. We went to a proper studio and they just happened to acquire the Abbey Road mixing console. It was amazing.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Ten years ago, soprano vocalist Liv Kristine Espenaes Krull quite unexpectedly found herself out of a job. Theatre Of Tragedy, the band that made her famous (and vice versa) gave her the boot citing musical differences, cutting Liv loose and leaving her to her own devices. It was a blessing in disguise once the initial shock wore off, leading to the launch of a grand experiment in collaboration with the members of Atrocity dubbed Leaves’ Eyes. The goth-flavoured debut album, Lovelorn, was viewed as Liv’s comeback following two albums’ worth of head-scratching electronica with Theatre Of Tragedy. It set the stage for an ongoing project that would ultimately surpass her accomplishments with the Theatre, as Leaves’ Eyes evolved into something well beyond Liv’s doom goth roots. Their new album, Symphonies Of The Night, is the bold next step in what has been a constant evolution.

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“We’ve been around for 10 years, so when Thorsten (Bauer/guitars) started composing the music for this album a year-and-a-half ago we decided to keep an open mind about everything,” Liv begins. “We had enough time to let the songs develop and see where they went. We didn’t want to plan anything, we wanted to be taken places by the things that influenced the music. There were some musical ideas around that we didn’t use for the last album (Meredead), like ‘Saint Cecilia’, because there was no space for it. Thorsten spent hours and hours working in the studio, so it was always interesting to go in on Monday morning and check out what he’d done (laughs). I continued from there, Alex (Krull/Atrocity) supervised everything and added some spice to it. It was a very creative period for us because we just let everything in. It’s great working with Alex and Tosso. The three of us are the perfect team. We compliment each other in such a great way, I couldn’t imagine a better working relationship. It’s amazing.”

And even though they have a decade under their collective belt, Leaves’ Eyes show no signs of getting bored with their own art. If there’s any sort of re-invention going on with regards to their musical direction it’s not on a level where the fans are left wondering what the hell happened on the way to the studio since the last album.

“We don’t have to re-invent ourselves just because we’ve been around for 10 years. We have so much experience that we can rely on, and we’re three different musicians that also happen to be perfectionists. If I said we needed to have dulcimer on a song, we’d go out and try to find somebody that plays dulcimer. That’s how we work.” Continue Reading

By Carl Begai

Back on October 24th, 1991 a 22 year-old head-in-the-clouds metalhead sporting the oddball name of Carl Begai took his kid brother to see Queensrÿche at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. The band was soaring on the strength of their now classic Empire album, and it was a show never to be forgotten by either sibling. A cult fave of the prog metal world through the ’80s, Queensrÿche had finally (and unexpectedly) hit the big time and gave the fans an arena show to match. Of course, if you’re a fan you’re fully aware of how things have gone to hell since then. Never mind the 20 years of pussyfooting around the band’s metal roots since Empire; amidst personal and professional ugliness there are now two versions of Queensrÿche, one featuring vocalist Geoff Tate and a new line-up, the other with former Crimson Glory singer Todd La Torre taking Tate’s place fronting the (almost) original roster. A recipe for confusion that will be rewritten in January 2014 when the battle over the band name goes to court.

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Twenty-two years and a day after that fateful Toronto show, I caught up with the Todd La Torre fronted incarnation of Queensrÿche – the real QR for anyone that has heard their new self-titled album – in surroundings far and away from the glory of Maple Leaf Gardens. In the middle of a European tour, the band touched down in Munich, Germany to play a simple rock club catering to only a couple hundred people, one of several steps towards rebuilding the Queensrÿche name as it should be remembered. Prior to the show we sat down to discuss Todd’s rise to fame and the band’s return to greatness.

“I was going to do both,” Todd says of leaving Crimson Glory to join Queensrÿche, which was official as of February 2013. “When I joined (side project) Rising West which then became Queensrÿche, they knew I was in Crimson Glory but they never said ‘Hey, you’ve gotta quit.’ As far as the guys were concerned, as long as I could do both and Crimson Glory wouldn’t infringe on Queensrÿche’s touring, cool. They knew I had an obligation to do a record, so they weren’t going to tell me to quit. What upset me and still does is when I read statements from Crimson saying that the writing was on the go when I joined the band, but the fact of the matter is that’s not true. I’m still friends with the guys but I haven’t talked to Jon Drenning (guitars) in over a year. When I’m back home we try to get together for dinner – me, Ben, Dana, Jeff – just to maintain that friendship. I care about those guys.”

Todd has no regrets about leaving Crimson Glory for Queensrÿche. Looking back on when the offer came down, he agrees it was a no-brainer.

“This is a dream come true… exponentially. When things went down it was like, ‘I have to do this.’ Parts of it are surreal, other parts are not because I know these guys now. We’re all very close so I don’t see them in the same way I did before just as a fan. I’m still a fan, but not the way I used to be.” Continue Reading