The long- awaited and oft-delayed third album from German singer / songwriter Cynthia Nickschas is exactly what and ultimately more than what the fans expected. Truth be told, as gut-wrenching as it is for any artist to be forced to wait to unveil new work, the pandemic and dealing with assorted life-related curveballs seems to have worked in Cynthia’s favour. And the fact this is her first record to truly be billed as “Cynthia Nickschas & Friends” – the moniker she has played under for years – speaks volumes as to the creative energy that went into this record.
It definitely shows, 200%.
Cynthia’s acoustic-based, big band stage sound made a flawless transition to the studio for Is’ Halt So!, delivering her trademark jazz / blues / folk compositions with a live-off-the-floor warmth that a lot of records released in 2022 don’t have. Every instrument can be heard (saxophone, trumpet, violin, acoustic and electric guitars), everyone gets to shine even though Cynthia is the intended star of the show. The fact that many of these songs have been performed live for the last couple years (when that sort of thing was allowed) enabled Cynthia & Friends to arrange and refine them to the level we hear in recorded form.
In their heyday, Canadian ’80s rock heroes Brighton Rock were branded as fluffy counterparts to their American hair band brethren thanks to big label boardroom decisions that saw ballads “Can’t Wait For The Night” and “One More Try” shoved front and center. No surprise there, as that was the sign of the times (see Warrant’s sappy breakthrough, “Heaven”), but it was a huge disservice to the bulk of Brighton Rock’s material, which was often heavier than expected. While the band remains semi-active, guitarist Greg Fraser chose to launch Storm Force and string together a 10-song celebration of feelgood in-your-face hair metal / rock in the spirit of classic Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Whitesnake, Dio, Ratt, and every other classic ’80s-era band that captured your imagination and made you pick up air guitar or sing into a hair brush for the first time.
Following the line scratched with Brighton Rock’s 1991 album, Love Machine, Fraser’s riffs are meat-on-the-bone heavy yet compact, the songs straight to the point and not legging a ton of “additional” keyboards / layered clutter. Lead single “Because Of You” is instantly infectious as only ’80s hair metal anthems can be, followed up by the standout title track that features one of Fraser’s heaviest guitar riffs (and best songs) to date. “Breathe” takes things in a different and darker direction, led by bass and drums, and featuring guest vocals by one Serena Pryne who comes off as a young Sass Jordan. “Dirty Vegas”, “Ride Like Hell” and “Marshall Law” are groove heavy, more rock than metallic, with balls by the ton. The country-esque “More Than You Know” is grudgingly enjoyable (don’t tell my metal friends), while full-on ballad “Different Roads”…. I’ll leave that for the soccer moms and bake sale dads that still love their cassette collections. Closing track “Ringside”, on the other hand, ends things with a satisfying amount of shred recalling the work of guitar lord Jake E. Lee.
Annihilator frontman / founder Jeff Waters is notoriously critical of his own work. An album that he is 100% pleased with upon release can ultimately end up being dressed down a year or two later as “not my best work” or “a 6 out of 10” in the press. A surefire sign that the man is always trying to improve himself rather than resting and relying on past glories like Annihilator’s first two untouchable classic records, Alice In Hell (1989) and Never, Neverland (1990). This dynamic duo is the benchmark for Annihilator fans everywhere, of course, and as a diehard follower that has found some worth in most (not all) of Waters’ albums it’s gotta be said that with Ballistic, Sadistic he has finally managed to bring Alice home.
Maybe it’s the success Annihilator has had on the live front over the last few years, maybe it’s the positive turns of Waters’ personal life, maybe it was having drummer Fabio Alessandrini in the studio rather than relying on programmed drums – or all of the above – but Ballistic, Sadistic is by far the heaviest, fastest, best written / arranged Annihilator record since Refresh The Demon (1996). And by “heaviest” we’re talking the full-on tasteful and tight guitar shred that made Annihilator famous with classics like “W.T.Y.D”, “Human Insecticide”, “Reduced To Ash” and “Alison Hell”.
Vocalist Ian Parry has been kicking around for well over 30 years, having made the most noise with Dutch bashers Elegy in the ’90s and his five-album Consortium Project, which ran its course between 1999 – 2011. In Flagrante Delicto dials things back from the metal of these previous outings to a more classic-rock foundation, and it may well be one of the strongest records of his extensive career. It most certainly crushes Parry’s previous four solo albums.
Lead-off track and laid back track “Spaceman” initially strikes one as odd for an album opener, but it’s easy to see it as an intro for what’s to come as In Flagrante Delicto plays out. Things get progressively heavier, hinting at the glory days of acts like Yes, Deep Purple, classic Styx, and Marsden-era Whitesnake. By no means is the material dated, however, as Parry is unafraid to mess with Rammstein-esque samples and crunch grooves (see “In Flagrante Delicto” and “Impulse”), deftly using them for nuance rather than as a move to remain relevant in 2020. And if you want to use the old adage “everything old is new again” it’s fair to say Parry does a solid job of it. “Travellers” shows his love for tasteful prog – so well displayed during his Elegy days – while “Fool’s Paradise” and “Wish” are simple straight-ahead no-frills rockers that will likely annoy the more closed-minded prog-loving members of Parry’s audience. The album winds down with the feelgood vibe of commercial Rush in “Fly” – a favourite of the moment – followed by the polar opposite brood of “The Day We Stop Dreaming”. It closes with a feather in Parry’s cap, the stellar “So Far, So Good”, which recalls the early days of Dream Theater (Images And Words / When Dream And Day Unite) before all their widdly prog wankery was levelled-up to 11. A brilliant way to end the record and force a repeat listen.
German singer / songwriter Cynthia Nickschas’ 2018 album, Egoschwein, may well be the most punk thing to ever hit my sound system. And there isn’t a single hint of in-your-face distortion to be heard.
I’m definitely late to the party on this one, but I’ve found that in between the bouts of Arch Enemy, Children Of Bodom, Soilwork, Warrior Soul, Moonspell and Cradle Of Filth that shake the walls of my office on a regular basis, Egoschwein is a wonderful way to cleanse my musical pallet and educate my ears a little bit more.
Nickschas is a live performer first and foremost, dishing out her own unique brand of acoustic-based big-band blues-infused-jazz. Egoschwein sounds like it was recorded live off the floor, particularly the vocals, which have a smoke-and-whiskey edge one expects to hear from the stage, not from a polished studio recording. Any notes or tones that sound slightly off – a hair flat or a tad sharp – only add to the organic feel of the songs. She’s often reminiscent of Patti Smith circa 1979 crossed with classic Tracy Chapman, making for a sound all her own. Instrumentally, the album is loaded with musical fireworks and gentle nuance backing the acoustic guitar / bass / drums core with saxophone, violin (fiddle for you heathens), piano, some clean electric guitar, and a healthy dose of vocal ad-libs from Nickschas. While the songs stand on their own as solo / duo acoustic renditions – often performed that way – the full band adds a whole new dimension to the tracks, making them so much stronger.
Germany’s M.I.GOD. have been kicking around since 2001, having released a handful of albums worthy of their small and loyal following, but nothing to make the jaded journalist stand up and take note for more than a few heartbeats. Until now. Specters On Parade is not only the best album of their career – their first since 2012 – it’s one of those records where people in-the-know wonder why in the hell M.I.GOD. hasn’t been picked up by a big label and put on a well-deserved promo pedestal.
Specters On Parade is a bold concept album featuring 20 tracks – ten full songs separated by brief soundscapes – that focuses on the protagonist’s internal battle with his mind. Heavy, melodic and dark, vocalist Max Chemnitz proves to be remarkably versatile with his mid-range, which is two steps shy of being one of those smoky goth voices yet all metal right up to hitting the highs, and using death metal growls as a nuance rather than part of the big picture (brilliant decision). Likewise, guitarists Uli Holzermer and Dan Hess shine from beginning to end, whether it’s charging in as riff monsters, playing it soft, or soundtrack atmospheric. Guitar riffs and tones range anywhere from Queensryche to Dream Theater to Devin Townsend to Static X depending on the song, and it has to be said that drummer Eric Wunderlich stands out in a very Portnoy / Rockenfield way, providing a solid metal backbone without being overbearing. Continue reading M.I.GOD. – Specters On Parade
Fronted by former Sodom guitarist Andy Brings – from the Tapping The Vein and Get What You Deserve albums – Double Crush Sydrome is Germany’s version of Danko Jones; a solid three-piece rock band with corpse-glam painted punk tendencies backed by a solid metalhead pedigree. Active since 2013, the band is finally making some serious headway with this first official album featuring updated tracks from their 2013 independent release, The You Filter, and brand new songs. Die For Rock N’ Roll kicks off with the Skid Row-does-Ramones sounding “Gimme Everything” and remains full steam ahead through the title track, “Unfriend Me Now” and “She’s A Pistol”, gaining momentum and dynamics as it goes. Aside from sporting a clever title, “On Top Of Mount Whateverest” shows off the DCS penchant for sidestepping predictability, with bassist (and Brings’ former Traceelords bandmate) Slick adding his voice to the proceedings and the band tying things off with a mighty metal outro. The Danko Jones punch of “Yeah! Pain!” is followed by the unexpectedly cheesy (and first official single) “I Wanna Be Your Monkey”, which has legs for miles as a live track and is bound to become a singalong show closer. “Slow Suicide” is the exact opposite, dark and destined to surprise some people given the album’s party vibe with its “please kill yourself” bridge. And so it goes on the Die For Rock N’ Roll rock n’ rollercoaster from the moment it leaves the gate. Continue reading DOUBLE CRUSH SYNDROME – Die For Rock N’ Roll
Following up their respectable low-key 2015 debut, Behold, the German trio Fall Of Carthage return with a thundering second record that quite frankly puts album #1 to shame. Everything about The Longed-For Reckoning is bigger, better, and loaded with major league potential. Best to leave the genre-specific tags, stamps and brands in the box; Fall Of Carthage are a no-nonsense bordering-on-brutal metal band, as they encompass and embrace the groove and thrash that made Testament, Pantera and Machine Head go-to bands for rivet-heads the world over. Additionally, there are dozens of crushing moments reminiscent of guitarist James Murphy’s classic Convergence album. Quite the victory for guitarist Arkadius Antonik, who is currently celebrating a 20 year career under his belt as the frontman and brainchild behind folk metal veterans Suidakra. Fall Of Carthage gives him the chance to simply shut up and play, cranking out some of the juiciest riffs of his existence since Suidakra’s classic Emprise To Avalon album released way back in 2002.
And the song arrangements…. prepare for a rollercoaster ride thanks to drummer Martin Buchwalter, who goes beyond anything he’s done with Perzonal War. Grab a listen to “Turning Point”, “Dust And Dirt” and “Fast Forward” for an overview of what to expect, then prepare to be knocked ass over teacup as you wind your way through the record. Continue reading FALL OF CARTHAGE – The Longed-For Reckoning
The first draft of this review was a pissed-off kneejerk reaction to what I initially interpreted as pop metal guardians Amaranthe trying to suck the marrow out of the success they had with “Drop Dead Cynical” from their previous album, Massive Addictive. After weeks of listening to Maximalism, I decided the record is instead about contrasts, thus giving fans an even bigger pop experience than ever before, while getting a hell of a lot heavier and more innovative at the same time.
Things start off well enough with “Maximize” but as of the second track in, “Boomerang”, things get uncomfortable beginning with a chorus that screams of the Dead Or Alive über-classic “You Spin Me Round”. It’s followed by the Queen trademarked clap-clap-thump of “We Will Rock You” as the “backbone” for first single “That Song” (the album’s low low point), followed-up with the “Drop Dead Cynical” rip-off “21”. Three head-scratchers in a row aren’t made any easier to swallow when bookended by “On The Rocks”, a party anthem that’s only one Randall Amp away from being a Ke$ha tune even though Ryd is pretty entertaining.
In a bizarre twist mid-way through Maximalism, Amaranthe blast a hole through the ceiling with “Fury” featuring Henrik Englund leading the charge and spitting venom for miles; the man’s screams are melodic death metal gold. We’re going to assume Ryd’s tip of the hat to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in the same song is a well-placed joke. “Faster” and “Break Down And Cry” in particular recall The Nexus album’s best heavy moments, and “Supersonic” comes off as Maximalism’s most impressive track (after “Fury”) with some whacked-out(standing) Queen-esque vocal arrangements on top of the band’s trademark up-tempo delivery. “Fireball”, much like “Maximize”, is a safe Amaranthe song that displeases only those who hate the band. The album closes with an Elize solo spot on “Endlessly”, which sounds like something Disney would gladly pay a cool billion to Celine Dion to record for one of their animated films. Continue reading AMARANTHE – Maximalism
Z² from 2014 was the Devin Townsend Project’s ambitíous double album split into two very different sonic entities. Hardly a stretch for the man leading the charge, as Devin Townsend’s 20+ year music career is based on diversity, but for some fans it fell well short of some rather high expectations. Compared to other records in the Townsend / DTP catalogue Z² was a tough listen, never quite digging in, although there are some diehard fans that no doubt absorbed every note (naturally) and have already bagged this review as bullshit (naturally). Transcendence is the Devin Townsend Project’s return to form, putting things back in focus and turning in a rather prog-heavy record, opting for songs both long and short over the space of a comfortable 10 tracks.
In what seems to have become a DTP tradition of covering Townsend material, Transcendence kicks off with an updated version of “Truth” from the Infinity album (released in 1998), following up what they’ve done previously with “Hyperdrive” and “Kingdom”. From there we dive into a record reminiscent of the Epicloud album is spots with a very prominent Ocean Machine vibe all the way through. The guitar riffs and tones on “Stormbending” and “Secret Sciences” are positively fat and gorgeous, drummer Ryan van Poederooyen shines on “Failure” and “Higher” with his percussive groove madness on Transcendence’s two most adventurous tracks. “Higher” also happens to be the album’s prog mad centerpiece loaded with crushing guitars, some welcome metal vocal fireworks from Townsend, huge “Grace”-like melodies (see Epicloud), the song seemingly pulling itself in different directions over its nine minute run but ending things intact. The lone up-tempo song, “Offer Your Light” – Anneke van Giersbergen’s in-your-face guest spot – and the “Transcendence” title track are big on Ocean Machine-ry, the latter recalling the magic of tracks like “Funeral” and “Bastard”, although far more upbeat. Closing song “Transdermal Celebration” is indeed the Ween hit dressed up as a DTP track, and you would swear Townsend & Co. wrote it from scratch judging by how well it fits alongside the rest of the material on the album. Continue reading DEVIN TOWNSEND PROJECT – Transcendence