BW&BK Interview: QUEENSRŸCHE – Rebuilding The Empire

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 BW&BK Interview: QUEENSRŸCHE – Rebuilding The Empire

BW&BK Interview: NIGHTWISH – Going Dutch: “Floor Jansen Owns The Stage And The Audience”

By Carl Begai

The day after it was announced that Nightwish touring vocalist Floor Jansen (Revamp, ex-After Forever) had been made an official band member, BW&BK was given the opportunity to speak with keyboardist/mastermind Tuomas Holopainen about the band’s forthcoming live/tour documentary DVD Showtime, Storytime. Good thing they took care of business before press began, because if they hadn’t most of this conversation would have consisted of yours truly telling Holopainen he would have to be a special kind of insane to let Jansen slip away. But really, it’s no surprise that Jansen was asked to stay considering her monumental efforts since coming on board at the last minute to replace the booted Anette Olzon back in October 2012.

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“I know it didn’t come as a surprise to anybody,” Holopainen says of the news. “We wanted to make it official at this point because we knew we were going to do a lot of promotion for the upcoming DVD. It’s just easier to do things this way; we don’t need to keep our mouths shut.”

The documentary portion of the DVD begins appropriately with footage from Denver, Colorado as Nightwish makes a mad scramble to put together some semblance of a setlist in the wake of Olzon falling ill. With their singer unable to perform and an audience willing to stick around for whatever the band can come up with, Nightwish enlist support band Kamelot’s backing singers Elize Ryd (Amaranthe) and Alissa White-Gluz (The Agonist). The rest is a pretty amazing piece of history. Holopainen is caught on camera after the show stating that he’d never been as scared as he was two hours earlier.

“That was the truth,” he admits. “The whole day is just a hazy dream to me now. It was such an awkward moment. A big hand to Elize and Alissa… they were amazing. But that’s what doing live shows is all about. Sometimes these things happen and it’s really memorable stuff; a mass karaoke with those two lovely girls joining us, doing some instrumental stuff as well. It was something different and I don’t think anybody left the venue upset or annoyed.”

Olzon, on the other hand, was genuinely upset and took to her official website to air her feelings. She made it clear she thought the band was wrong to go ahead without her. On October 1st the band released a statement announcing Olzon’s departure and that Jansen would be filling in for the rest of the tour.

“We got quite a bit of criticism for doing the show without Anette,” Holopainen reveals. “Some people asking us how we could be so selfish and do the show without her. It was quite the opposite. We had to think about the 1,600 fans, the promoter, the crew, everybody. Seriously, if something happened to me or any of the other band members, I’d do anything to still make the show happen. We offered the money back from the tickets. We told the fans how the show was going to be, so of course if they wanted to leave they should get their money back. It was seven refunds out of 1,600 so that was pretty good.” Continue reading BW&BK Interview: NIGHTWISH – Going Dutch: “Floor Jansen Owns The Stage And The Audience”

BW&BK Interview: JAMES LABRIE – A Second Round Of Static

By Carl Begai

Bad news for Dream Theater fans that were put off by frontman James LaBrie’s 2010 solo album, Static Impulse:

Yep, he did it again. With the same cast of characters backing him up.

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You have to have a certain amount of sympathy for the folks that ran for cover when Static Impulse was released, however. It was the highly anticipated follow-up to LaBrie’s critically acclaimed Elements Of Persuasion album from 2005, which finally put his solo career on track in the wake of two somewhat confusing Mullmuzzler records. And yet he’d seemingly chucked the possibility of any future accolades in favour of Swedish death metal-inspired aggression, courtesy of drummer Peter Wildoer (Darkane) coughing up blastbeats and growls as required. It was an experiment of sorts concocted by LaBrie, long time collaborator/keyboardist Matt Guillory and producer Jens Bogren that took them as far away from Dream Theater’s prog metal shadow as possible, and for all the bitching and moaning from some scandalized fans Static Impulse was a success.

The new album, Impermanent Resonance, picks up where Static Impulse left off. The tear-your-head-off aggression of some of the songs has been toned down while the melodic aspects of the music have been turned up, but it’s definitely the same creative team behind the metal. And metal it is, with nary a prog-ism to be heard. Just like last time out, the only similarity between this new album and Dream Theater is the guy standing behind the microphone.

BW&BK: Was it clear from the beginning that Impermanent Resonance was going to follow in Static Impulse’s footsteps rather than experimenting with a new musical direction, like you did from going from Elements Of Persuasion to Static Impulse? There are similarities between those records, sure, but Static Impulse ripped the doors off the car you guys built with Elements….

Matt: “I think Elements Of Persuasion was the turning point, or at least a new chapter for us. We’d established ourselves as having a metal foundation within our music so we didn’t want to abandon that at all, especially coming off Static Impulse. We defintely wanted to keep that foundation for Impermanent Resonance but take it a step further, especially with the melodies and the hooks in the music. Also, the atmospheric perspective wasn’t emphasized on Static Impulse, so we wanted to bring that out on the new record.”

BW&BK: Static Impulse is a more aggressive record in comparison to Impermanent Resonance. In fact, if you were to dump the guitars and change the production on Impermanent Resonance you’d have some great pop songs.

James: “Absolutely, no doubt about it. They’re pretty damn pop-ish even as they stand now (laughs) but I get what you’re saying. You could come at some of these songs as a piano/vocal rendition, and ‘Say You’re Still Mine’ is pretty much in that vein as it is. I think Matt put some amazing songs together, like ‘Back On The Ground’ and ‘Holding On’. A song like ‘Back On The Ground’ definitely deserves to be in amongst the songs being played on radio these days, and it stands up against any one of them. For me a song is either song or it’s not good, and what’s important is what it conveys to me regardless of whether it’s a metal song or a pop song or a jazz piece. There are songs on Impermanent Resonance that definitely have that pop sensibility to them.” Continue reading BW&BK Interview: JAMES LABRIE – A Second Round Of Static

BW&BK Interview: U.D.O. – Nailed It!

By Carl Begai

udo2Udo Dirkschneider will tell you – and a host of press people and fans will agree – that his U.D.O. metal machine has been on cruise control for the past few years. Not that anyone was expecting the 62 year-old vocalist to abandon the sound he created with Accept a lifetime ago and kept alive with U.D.O. while Wolf Hoffmann and Co. explored their options before getting back into the game with a new singer, yet there was something painfully tired and all too predictable about U.D.O.’s last couple albums. As a result all but the diehard fans kept expectations low leading up to the new slab, Steelhammer, only to discover a vibrant in-your-face yesteryear U.D.O. pounding at the door. Gone are guitarist Igor Gianola and guitarist/producer Stefan Kaufmann, and along with the latter the compressed punch-card production and nigh-on-industrial tweakings have also disappeared. In exchange, Dirkschneider and his new bandmates have turned out an album worthy of the classic U.D.O debut Animal House (‘87) and over-the-top Timebomb record(‘91), proving there band has plenty of ammo left.

“I wasn’t really happy about the sound of the last two U.D.O. albums,” says Dirkschneider, singling out Dominator (2009) and Rev-Raptor (2011) as the guilty culprits in the band’s catalogue. “They were very cold. There are some great songs on those albums but there’s no feeling in there, no atmosphere. I think it was good that things happened the way they did. Steelhammer is a new start for U.D.O.”

Kaufmann’s departure was a surprise to folks outside the band, given that he and Dirkschneider came up together with Accept and have worked together pretty much non-stop since 1980. The decision to part ways was health-related, however, and not a typical music industry “creative differences” divorce.

“When we did the recordings for the Rev-Raptor album we had to stop for three months because he couldn’t move anymore,” Dirkschneider explains. “Then, on the tour he had to take painkillers, so he wasn’t in a good mood and the whole atmosphere in the band was bad. I’ve known Stefan for nearly 40 years or something, and after the last show in Kiev I told him we needed to talk about this, and I said that I thought it would be best if he stopped touring. Continue reading BW&BK Interview: U.D.O. – Nailed It!

BW&BK Interview: SOILWORK – Make It A Double…

By Carl Begai

Out promoting Soilwork’s new album The Living Infinite, frontman Björn “Speed” Strid will tell you that as far as he’s concerned the band’s previous effort from 2010, The Panic Broadcast, didn’t get the attention it deserved. It was a record that washed away the bland taste of Sworn To A Great Divide (2007) with waves of thrash, colour and dynamics that really did deserve more than just the initial buzz out of the gate, but Strid doesn’t blame their record label for a lack of support or the fans for lack of taste. He chalks it up instead to a glaring lack of touring on the band’s part, who logged far fewer miles than in past years thanks in large part to the will-he-or-won’t-he status of founding guitarist Peter Wichers.

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Having left the band in 2005 only to return in 2008 – and thus give Soilwork a much needed kick in the ass – Wichers found himself torn between commitments to the band and his personal life. Things eventually came to a head in June 2012 and he announced his (final?) departure, leaving Soilwork with a clear conscience and a clean slate. What better way to get back in the game doing double the work and churning out 20 songs for an official release?

“We always try to have the element of surprise in there whenever we go in to make a new album,” Strid says when Soilwork’s collective sanity sanity is called into question. Most bands have a hard enough time coughing up 10 songs with substance. “The real reason behind it… with all the chaos around Peter, I think we needed to turn things around and do something unique, something that stands out and turn it into something positive. We also wanted to show or prove to ourselves and the fans that there are other amazing songwriters in the band.”

Having different songwriters involved rather than just the Strid/Wichers seems to have had positive effect on the music as well, as The Living Infinite is definitely in the same park as The Panic Brodcast.

“For sure, and I think that was good for me. I definitely needed that because when Peter was a part of the band we knew each other so well musically, and in a situation like that sometimes you become too predictable. The fact that Peter was losing interest as well would have affected my work as well.” Continue reading BW&BK Interview: SOILWORK – Make It A Double…

BW&BK Exclusive: AVANTASIA – “Got The Time?”

By Carl Begai

I’m going to start this story with an apology to Tobias Sammet and all those involved with the Avantasia machine.

In my initial overview of the new album The Mystery Of Time (found here), I did a fair job of smack-talking Sammet’s previous Avantasia effort, The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon double album. In my world it was just too damn long, with only three songs of a possible 22 having left a mark on my brain since the 2010 release (‘Scales Of Justice’, ‘Stargazers’ and ‘Death Is Just A Feeling’ in case anyone cares). In stark contrast The Mystery Of Time boasts only 10 songs, and after only one time through during the listening session at the Nuclear Blast offices in Donzdorf, Germany there were melodies and riffs still resonating in my head days later. I blame my harsh view of The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon on being smacked with too much information at one time, while The Mystery Of Time is an exciting “buckle up” ride if you’re a fan of the genre. It seems my enthusiasm may have gotten the better of me. I still say Avantasia’s previous outing pales in comparison to the new album, but by no means had I intended to dumb down Sammet’s vision or the work that went into making it a reality.

Avantasia, The Mystery Of Time

That said, during the listening session for The Mystery Of Time, I did mention to Sammet that I thought The Wicked Symphony / Angel Of Babylon was too big for its own good.

“Definitely, I agree,” says Sammet. “Not that I would throw away any of the material because I like all the songs, but some of the songs suffered from being just one out of 22 songs that came out at the same time. The songs that would have been really appreciated on an album of 10 tracks were called ‘weak’ or ‘fillers’ because there was so much competition. That was something that I wasn’t able to predict. I thought, ‘I wrote the material, I like each song because I had months to become acquainted with them.’ I knew every detail of every song, so they were very important to me.”

The Mystery Of Time offers so much more to sink one’s teeth into because of its compact nature. Short-ish, sweet, wonderfully diverse, and straight to the point.

“I’m really with you on that,” Sammet agrees. “This album is an entity all its own, and compact is the best way to describe it.” Continue reading BW&BK Exclusive: AVANTASIA – “Got The Time?”

BW&BK Exclusive: QUEENSRŸCHE Vocalist Todd La Torre Resigns From CRIMSON GLORY

By Carl Begai

On February 7th, I was contacted by vocalist Todd La Torre, who was known first and foremost as the frontman for Crimson Glory before replacing Geoff Tate as the singer of Queensrÿche in 2012, effectively pulling double duty. After a lengthy conversation and some minor editing, La Torre handed over a press release exclusively for BW&BK (found here) announcing that, after approximately three years as Crimson Glory’s voice, he had officially resigned.

La Torre was introduced to Crimson Glory by Matt La Porte (Jon Oliva’s Pain, Circle II Circle), becoming an official member in 2010. He helped to ignite and give new life to the legendary band that had been on hiatus for nearly ten years, and mourning the loss of original vocalist Midnight. Crimson Glory emerged back into the world arena metal scene with very high praise and acceptance. La Torre toured as the new voice of Crimson Glory throughout Europe in celebration of the band’s 25th Anniversary with great success.

Talk of a new album was highly anticipated and the band appeared to be firing on all cylinders.

“We were writing the new album and things were looking good, says La Torre. “We had interest from two major European labels, which was very promising. I was very honored and proud that we were on the rise, and the fans were embracing all that we were doing. We had wonderful momentum and we were working within an important window of time within which the new record should have been recorded and released to have the most impact given the bands resurgence. Unfortunately, the record never materialized despite my best efforts.”

“My involvement with Queensrÿche had nothing to do with the album progress,” he continues. “I haven’t been contacted to write with Crimson Glory for over six months. As a band, our writing sessions were slow, eventually becoming non-existent before I ever joined Queensrÿche. During the specific timeframe that I was in talks with Queensrÿche, members of CG were simultaneously occupied by other external and internal endeavors that apparently absorbed the time and/or will away from CG, which is not fallacious per se, but it proceeded in passivity. The main reason for my resignation from Crimson Glory is primarily due to its inertia status.” Continue reading BW&BK Exclusive: QUEENSRŸCHE Vocalist Todd La Torre Resigns From CRIMSON GLORY

BW&BK 2012: The Scribes Speak Day 3 – Carl Begai

So, me and my extended BW&BK family have issued our individual Best Of 2012 lists because that’s the sort of thing you do in this biz as the new year kicks off. I’ve decided to post my long-winded overview of the last 12 months here, with a link provided leading to my Top 10 Albums list along with other honourable (and dishonourable) mentions…

It was a rollercoaster of a year, as they all are in the music biz.

From being blindsided by Halestorm’s new album The Strange Case Of… and becoming a fan against my will, to dealing with a fuckwit promo rep at Roadrunner Records who decided to change my questions in an email interview because she felt they were “too harsh” for her artist (um, shouldn’t that be for the artist to decide?), to bucket list interviews with Brighton Rock’s Gerry McGhee and the lovely Lita Ford, to witnessing some amazing shows on both sides of the pond, 2012 has been quite the adventure.

See the list here for the Hot and Not albums of my year, then pick apart my sanity at your leisure.

Gotta say that I was surprised at not being disappointed by any of the shows I was able to attend this year. The third annual European run of Rock Meets Classic featuring Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), Steve Lukather (Toto), Chris Thompson (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band), three-fifths of Primal Fear’s roster and Trillium vocalist Amanda Somerville was positively brilliant, with PF singer Ralf Scheepers going above and beyond lending his voice to the Toto hit ‘Rosanna’ (!). Watching Devin Townsend successfully manipulate a Motörhead crowd into doing his bidding was a gut-buster, seeing former Helloween members Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen on stage together with Unisonic belting out classics ‘I Want Out’ and ‘Future World’ was ’87 surreal, and the Leaves’ Eyes / Firewind tour that looked so weird on paper turned out to be one of the best gigs of the past 12 months.

Nightwish gets a scrapbook all its own due to a brilliant show in Nuremberg – featuring more pyro than the sun – and a day and night hanging with some of the finest people in the metal business. Continue reading BW&BK 2012: The Scribes Speak Day 3 – Carl Begai

BW&BK Interview: GAMMA RAY – Have You Heard This One..?

By Carl Begai

“From a fan’s point of view, I’d be happy to see one of my favourite bands doing a completely different setlist because I know all their songs. If I go to a Judas Priest show, rather than hearing ‘Living After Midnight’ I’d rather hear stuff like ‘Dreamer Deceiver’. That’s much more interesting even for a diehard fan that knows all the songs in a band’s catalogue.”

And there you have the motivation behind Gamma Ray’s new outing Skeletons & Majesties Live courtesy of frontman/founder Kai Hansen. Call it a case of the band challenging themselves and the fans by daring to be different, building a tour setlist in 2011 that reached all the way back to their 1990 debut Heading For Tomorrow and dusted off some of their more obscure tracks for the stage.

“It was really cool. And the great part of it was seeing that it actually works, that those songs aren’t weaker than the ones we play all the time. They just don’t get the attention they deserve. There are always the album favourites and the ‘real’ great songs, but that doesn’t mean the other songs are shit. When you do festivals and tours, sure, you include your ‘Best Of’ songs to make most of the people happy, but it was a lot of fun for us to do things this way.”

“That was especially at the rehearsals, when we were saying ‘Do we really have to practice ‘Send Me A Sign’ again?’ We’ve been playing that song for a long time and it’s quite simple, so there was no real need to go over it again. The songs that we hadn’t played in such a long time – or never – there was a totally different motivation to rehearsing them and improving ourselves.”

It was no secret the band was heading out to flog their so-called “rare” material when the tour was announced, and according to Hansen the number of people in the door on any given night was more or less the same as when Gamma Ray does an expectation-loaded show. Definitely a good thing considering the band committed themselves to a DVD shoot as preparations were being made.

“The tour was planned first, and then the suggestion came up to do a DVD since it’s been quite a while since the last one (Hell Yeah! The Awesome Foursome from 2008) and we were doing completely different songs. It was a perfect opportunity. We thought about doing a whole acoustic set but we decided it would be too much, especially for this band considering the music we play. It was better than we just changed things up for a song or two in the middle of the set.” Continue reading BW&BK Interview: GAMMA RAY – Have You Heard This One..?

BW&BK Interview: DESTRUCTION – Return Of The Riot Squad

By Carl Begai

It’s hard to believe that almost 13 years have passed since German thrash veterans Destruction made their triumphant return with All Hell Breaks Loose. It was a big deal for the fanboys on the BW&BK staff due to vocalist/bassist Schmier’s being back up front following a 10 year absence, and we’ve followed the band religiously ever since. An impressive seven studio albums since the reunion including the new slab of violence, Spiritual Genocide, and the naysayers are hard pressed to argue against the claim that Destruction are more vital than ever as elder statesmen in the thrash world.

“It’s crazy,” Schmier says of the band’s 13 year charge, which shows no sign of slowing down. “It doesn’t feel like we’ve been back that long. We’ve been working constantly since then. Doing new records every two years or so followed by all the touring – plus the live records and the DVDs – we’ve been rather productive (laughs).”

Not everyone was thrilled with Destruction’s return in 2000, however. Many fans complained that All Hell Breaks Loose was, for all its crushing energy, “too modern” to be a considered a worthy follow-up to the band’s early catalogue. Schmier remembers the bitching and moaning but his opinion of the people doing the complaining hasn’t changed over time.

“There are too many people always complaining about something, so if you listen to them all you just stop doing what you love. I think it’s important to do what you do best, and all I can say to all the haters and trolls out there is to get a life. Go do it better than us, motherfuckers (laughs). People bitch about this and that, but what have they achieved in life?” Continue reading BW&BK Interview: DESTRUCTION – Return Of The Riot Squad