ASTREAL DOORS
Astralism
Locomotive Records

Known mainly for sounding like Dio on a good day, this band of Swedish headbangers return for round three in their quest to resurrect classic Priest meets Maiden power metal. They have not only mastered a grinding guitar assault but roll in a tasteful keyboard element as a backdrop that caresses the discs 13 tracks. Match that with Patrick Johansson RJD vocal styling and you’ve got a tougher version of ’76-era Rainbow although a certain Tony Martin’s Black Sabbath finds its way into tracks like “London Caves” or the larger scale “Tears From A Titan.” The band boasts several grand, sweeping moments including “Israel,” “Raiders Of The Ark” and near seven-minute “Apocalypse Revealed.”

Lyrically the record is dark and brooding that reads like a soundtrack for a Wes Craven movie. There’s songs about the metaphysical (the hyper speed “EVP”), the physical “Oliver Twist” and the demonic “From Satan With Love.” Yet it’s the beauty of the acoustic intro to “Black Rain,” the twin-guitar fury of “Vendetta,” or the cinematic nature of “The Green Mile” that fuels this beast. Drawing heavily from the NWOBHM structure the guitars and vocals are mixed up front while the bass and drums are further back. The keys dart in and out and in some cases over power the songs. There is a heavy Deep Purple vibe that is captivating and retro at the same time. Overall Astralism is tastefully done, well produced and memorable.

Website: Astral Doors, Locomotive Records

PURE INC.
A New Day’s Dawn
Locomotive Records

Though relatively new to American audiences, Pure Inc. gained it’s notoriety by blowing Michael Schenker off the stage EVERY night they opened on his last jaunt through Europe. Indeed the Swiss / German rockers are a force to be reckoned with. Mixing the southern rock swagger of COC / Brand New Sin with the crunch of Audioslave / Soundgarden, the band spin metal harmonics into sticky webs of lethal addiction. Packing the most into crisp tunes, beer-soaked vocals and densely heavy riffs we get the feeling these guys are serious about what they do. Their take on supercharged blues, tuned up to eleven, and sledgehammer bass lines crushing lesser human beings. If that’s not enough go straight to track four “I’m A Rolling Stone” and watch the hair rise on your forearm.

Sure they lean on seventies hard rock, they embrace power-chords like a willing high school fling but they also find a contemporary voice in today’s overfed metal market. There’s the feedback in “Saviour” that hinges on a stoner groove, the funk in “Break Free” and the rhythmic rumbling of  “Blvd Jam” that sketches out the first ten minutes of this opus. You can also find modern elements in the Staind-like “Skinflint” or well-paced “Crawling.” That’s not to say everything’s perfect. The ballad-esque “I’ll Let You Know” falls flat with a thud but is redeemed by the eloquent “Where’s Your God.” Closing the record is the title track “New Day Dawn.” Almost Creed like in its approach we get a melodic acoustic intro leading into a passionate chorus at full vocal. This one is well worth discovering.

Website: Locomotive Records

PLANKTON
Self-titled
Grooveyard Records

Plankton come to us from Stockholm, Sweden by way of Rochester, NY-based Grooveyard records. On this, their self-titled release, the five-piece jam out 12 stellar instrumentals, most hovering between four and six-plus minutes. It’s immediately clear they make no bones about hiding their influences. Notable is the jazzier side of Uli Jon Roth and Electric Sun, which touch nearly every song here. There’s also this King Crimson meets Emerson Lake and Palmer prog element that hangs on throughout. A number of well-built pieces are found within the first half of the disc, or in vinyl terms, side one. “Pickadoll,” the second track, comes out of the gate with a winding Stevie Ray Vaughan riff, changes course a couple times as guitarist Christian Neppenström and Emil Fredholm side-swipe each other and find fresh ammunition in a funky blues beat. “Monsoon” is not too distant from lighter moments on Montrose’s Open Fire including jumping the track midway through with a lethal power serge. Recreating that early Scorpions vibe is “Elephantman,” and “Jorm.” They intoxicate the senses with a captivating journey through Astral Skies complete with repeated cross fades and sonic atmosphere.

It’s right around the Canned Heat rhythm punch of “Zeitgeist” that we hear bassist Tomas Thorberg take his own spot under the stage light. He’s a knockout addition to this band and lays it down thick and heavy. “Groovedawg” gets a bit jazzy with Sebastian Sippola (whose Grand Magus t-shirt did not go unnoticed) rising as the star here keeping the bottom end solid while the guitars wonder around looking for a place to go. A nice surprise is Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” The band does a fine rendition of the 1963 classic complete with toughened up guitar interplay. Both “Humble Colossus” and “Living Room Jam” teeter between Robin Trower and Joe Satriani – lots of six-string muscle. “Universal Walkabout” closes this baby out. Be careful, it wonderers way out there in this Pink Floyd kinda way, drifting aimlessly you can hear the musicians flying around each other occasionally coming together for brief moments of cohesive melody. No doubt about it, these guys can play so have your jazz-fusion ears tuned and ready.

Website: Plankton, Grooveyard Records

LANCE LOPEZ
Wall of Soul
Grooveyard Records

Recently, we here at TCE headquarters have become big fans of Lance Lopez. Though we try, we cannot guarantee this review will be completely unbiased. Wall of Soul is not only one man’s tribute to all things Hendrix, it also showcases a gifted performer in his own right. This is the second studio effort from the Dallas, TX axeslinger, and the record exudes confidence not only in playing and arranging, but also in Lopez’s vocal performance. At times he sounds somewhere between a raspy Jimmy Dewar and Dr. John. Like fellow Texas native Stevie Ray Vaughan, his voice synchronizes well with his playing. Lopez’s band is a powerful trio with Daniel Williams on bass and John Garvin on drums. The two are solid ‘in-the-pocket’ players and give the disc its infectious groove. Lopez is credited with nearly all the songwriting; however Eric Gales makes a guest appearance on “I Don’t Want No More” and “Quarter, Nickel or a Dime.” King’s X bassist/vocalist Doug Pinnick contributes his vocals to the closing track, “Time” 

“Love/Hate Relationship” gets things cooking right from the start. The sprit of Hendrix possesses Lopez as he blazes through a flurry of distinctive runs keeping the pedal heavy and the grind nice n’ dirty. “Looks So Good” eases up with a funky vibe so that when the metal of “DiDja” hits, it’s like a blow to the chest. This is where Lopez takes flight making his mark on the heavy blues market. Follow him as he does the same with Robin Trower’s “Shame on the Devil,” the ballsy “Cardboard Sign” and his blazing rendition of Hendrix’s “Spanish Castle Magic.” The shear energy of his playing will get your pulse rate up. There are the occasional subdued moments like the jazz-fusion bit in “What Goes around Comes Around” or the tasteful intro to “I Don’t Want No More” but it the pelvic thrust of “Alone in Love” and “Idle Time” that sets Lopez on the road to rock guitar stardom.

Website: Lance Lopez, Grooveyard Records

ELECTRIC SHADES OF BLUE
Self-titled
Independent release

This is the way it’s done. Electric Shades of Blue are four guys from northern Washington state that share the same vision of classic rock. They’ve done their homework listening to the old blues standards like Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, they’ve worked their way through the seventies rock luminaries of Led Zeppelin, Cream, Faces, Free and Humble Pie. Now they have assembles 8-teaser tracks of pure rock energy fit for the masses. Kurtis Dengler (vocal/guitar) leads this brigade with a soulful guitar, whiskey soaked voice and convincing delivery. He has the poses down, the vocal inflections and the passion. Jacob Lundgren (guitar) brings the finesse in the form of a Fender Strat where he bends, twists and cranks out huge riffs. Ben Strom (bass) and Lars Henriksen (drums) add the muscle with a thick bottom end. And their young, the oldest being 16.

All songs on their new opus are hand crafted by the band, a bold move considering most bands of like ilk throw in a cover or two. The Black Crowes debut comes to mind.  “Girl” launches into a hypnotic grinder reminiscent of Jet with its pacing and gutsy drive. The guitars stick to this beast like bees on honey – no noodling just pure power. “The Key,” is evidently a live track and drops into a slow blues number with maximum maturity. Lundgren’s solo is tasteful and emotional - building as it goes into a volumetric climax. The Cream-inspired “Before Tomorrow” howls like it’s a hundred years old with the nasty blues rockers “Disappear” and “Sugar Mama” following in the form of The Black Keys meets White Stripes. The blues instrumental “Vamanos” cooks with a rockin’ undercurrent then the guitar rules supreme in “Crawlin’ King Snake” calling back to the depths of early Foghat. “Daisy” closes out the EP with an acoustic bluegrass/country vibe feeling like The Band or Bronco on a lazy summer afternoon.

Electric Shades of Blue have a full-length disc due in July 2006. Check their website for a release date.

Website: Electric Shades of Blue

JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS
Sinner
Blackheart Records

As the sole pioneering musician that led to the riot girl trend, Jett continues to stay the course with her newest opus Sinner. The disc comes at a time that finds Jett upgrading her profile with the headline slot for the Warped tour, a highly praised SXSW showing and a couple benefit shows with Bruce Springsteen. Sinner is a mixed bag. Compiled from nearly a dozen recording sessions over a ten-year gap, the disc is Jett’s first full-length release since 1994’s Pure and Simple. The cut and paste process from so many sessions over such a long period of time is evident as the 14-tracks range in quality and production.

Whether it’s politics, sexual orientation or personal introspection, Jett has decided to come out swinging. Lucky for us she still likes to rock and packages her musical journey into tight little power punk pop songs. Ten of the tracks featured here hail from the Japanese release Naked (2004), her most personal and open record to date. Only four off Sinner would be considered “new” songs. Two huddle right up front starting with “Riddles” a political left-hook complete with Bush vocal samples. Sticking with her old school delivery, Jett’s pensive voice packs a wallop and the catchy riff makes the song linger long after it’s over. Sweet’s bubble gum glam hit “A.C.D.C.” follows with Jett and co. grinding it into a full on rock anthem. Her inflection with the lyric, “Lesbian in it together” keeps her innuendos light and humorous.

The disc then runs through her Naked set with an alternate track listing. Her introspection and self-analysis shows up in “Five,” “Naked,” “Androgynous” and “Fetish” all playful, earnest and hard rockin’. “Everyone Knows” turns personal with a stain of life experience then it’s on to her CBGB days in “Change the World.” Punch, gritty guitars keep it more punk than rock. The perky “Tube Talkin” has a distant Runaways vibe – simple song structure, digestible, a bit more playful. Contrast that to the drum crashing, metal surge of “Turn it Around” – which fits more along the lines of classic Jett. Two lighter moments come into play with the quivering love letter “Watersign” and the narrative “Baby Blue” which sings, “switch hitter, plays the filed, she ain’t concerned – as long as it real”-thoughts to ponder. It’s never been about what Jett says; it’s how she says it. Attitude and a guitar will always be her stalk and trade and this disc is full of both.

Website: Joan Jett, Blackheart Records

ON TRIAL
Forever
Bad Afro Records

For ten years Bad Afro Records has been pushing Scandinavian rock to the man. To help celebrate their decade-long effort, the label is releasing a hand full of finely polished and eagerly anticipated electric gems. One such relic is the sixth release for the Copenhagen acid rockers On Trail. In the past, original drummer Guf Lorenzen and guitarist Anders Skjodt have been splitting their time between Baby Woodrose and On Trial. In 2003 they made a permanent split to focus on Baby Woodrose and were replaced by ex-Mother Superior drummer Anders Stub and guitarist Bjarni Olsen. On Trial’s Forever marks the first outing we hear the two join vocalist Bo Morthen Petersen, guitarist Henrik and bassist Nikolaj Lykkenielsen. Together they have collected a sonic cluster of professional magnetism without sacrificing their organic texture.

Enormous fans of the late sixties garage sound, On Trail continue their fascination of a 13th Floor Elevators/Roky Erikson vibe by bring it into the 21 Century and coming off a bit like Live or R.E.M. Opening track “Mountain” fuses a layered acoustic strum that hydroplanes over an addictive power riff. Vocalist Bo Morthen Petersen carries the tune with Murmur-era Michael Stripe inflections while the drums encroach on the mix keeping the groove solid and forceful. Both “Speaking of Witch” and “Black Seagull’ melt into one haunting masterpiece. Feeding their fuzz wrapped around the melody they bolster the sound with a psychedelic friendliness.

Fu Manchu franticness keeps the volume cranked for “Kill City Lights” which pushes the stoner grind past the barricade and into the cosmos. The wooly “Every New Direction” goes for more of an American folk-rock, post-punk, garage battering ram. The languid “One Good Morning” moves from a mid-tempo hook to an unyielding wail during the solo. Then “Blood River” jumps out as the disc’s best track. Melodic and emotional with a memorable hook…very desert-like. Kyuss meets Live comes up again and again as “Too Late Too Loud” burns into the Who-like “Morning Sun.” Call it retro-rock, Euro stoner or neo-psychedelic; On Trail delivers a rich amalgamation of structure and taste.

Website: On Trial, Bad Afro Records

ERIC MANTEL
The Unstruck Melody
Holistir Music Entertainment

Chicago native and guitar virtuoso Eric Mantel has stepped back into the spotlight after years as an elite guitar instructor. His highly praised The Unstruck Melody CD has been making its rounds and touted as a genuine masterpiece. Elegant playing, diversified styles and Mantel’s own unique vocal phrasings make the record an enjoyable and satisfying listen. Divided into two sections, or Acts, each containing 10 tracks apiece might make the single disc almost overwhelming. However, as the laser moves easily along the tracking order Mantel casts his spell and you’re hooked. The record begins with the tuning of the radio from soft rock to jazz to new age to world music, all Mantel compositions - an excellent way to introduce the hybrid of Mantel’s ability. The dial settles on a jazzy mid-tempo rocker reminiscent of Eric Johnson, hence the reason it’s called “Tribute.” Adding keyboards we get a similar feel for “Exit 10,” both have an easy flow with a Texas swagger, though the latter could easily be a Pat Metheny track.

“Simple Things” introduces us to Mantel’s pleasing tenor voice reminiscent of David Pack, Donald Fagan or Patrick Simmons. Like much of the disc it has a ‘70’s vibe, not in production, but in song craft. That continues through to the Doobie Brother/Steely Dan-influenced “The Real You,” “Gloria” and “Shine On.” The musicianship is highly skilled creating wonderful texture. Mantel used a host of local musicians to aid in creating his layered effects including bassist John Falstrom, keyboardist Rusty Hill, drummer Patrick Doody, pedal steel player Rich Koch and sitar player Clar Monaco. He also makes full use of chorus-like background vocals including the silky pipes of Paula Mantel who accompanies the guitarist on the passionate “True Home.”

Influences abound in the bluesy, keyboard driven “Merry Go Round” and progressive “Don’t Let the Day Go By” where ELP meets Yes. The tougher, amplified aggression of “Wings of Fire” and “Only Want Your Love” are retro Hendrix, Beck, Page and Trower. Both cook with searing intensity as Mantel snakes his way around a power-chord rhythm. He handles the jazz pieces with the same technical skill whether it’s the light airy “Under a Different Light” or the Al Dimeola/Larry Carlton-inspired “Tai-Chi.” If it’s hot licks you’re looking for, jump to the blazing “Finger Pickin’ Country” a-la Chet Atkins. Cleverly placed are the Middle Eastern elements which not only bridge the two “Acts” but also explain the record’s title in “The Unstruck Melody.” Recommended for musicians, guitarists and fans of fusion guitar.

Website: Eric Mantel

DRAGONFORCE
Inhuman Rampage
Roadrunner Records

It’s what all the kids are listening to these days - even my 14-year old cousin has it on his iPod. If you don’t know who this power-metal sextet is, you’re not paying attention. Dragonforce hail from England and have been the talk of the town since forming in 1999. Most of the buzz comes from the frantic nature of their playing with an audience wondering how they can keep up their speed through a whole set. The nucleolus of the band centers around the twin-guitar attack of Herman Li and Sam Totman. The two weave a complex pattern of rifle-fire riffs that take hold of a melody and grind it like shards of steel. Hero of the day is drummer Dave Mackintosh whose double kick thump easily competes with an industrial jackhammer. Keyboard player Vadim Pruzhanov and bassist Adrian Lambert bring a distinct prog feel to the band while ZP Theart, though criticized for his melodic vocals, cultivates the stance of great frontmen in the wake of Bruce Dickinson and Geoff Tate.

Inhuman Rampage is the third outing for the band following the success of 2004’s Sonic Firestorm. Collecting elements of metal’s cliché’s including dungeons and dragon lyrics, Yngwie leads, Maiden bass riffs and Helloween theatrics, Dragonforce succeeds in one category - guilty pleasure. They do what others did in the early eighties but faster, cleaner and with better production. Take the record’s lead single and video (which is included on the CD) “Through the Fire and Flames.” It comes out of the box like a bull raging, track to same pace different lyrics. In fact the disc doesn’t stop its tympanic assault until it’s over. “Revolution Deathsquad,” “Storming the Burning Fields” and “Operation Ground Pound” though cheesy, are sonic masturbation. Even when the band tries a softer touch as in “Body Breakdown” and “Trail Of Broken Hearts,” the undercurrent still rages like class 5 rapids. Like Judas Priest clones Hammerfall, Dragonforce know they’re takin’ a piss, but they do it better than anyone else.

Website: Dragonforce, Roadrunner Records

VIKING SKULL
Born In Hell
Fourfivesix Entertainment

Born In Hell is a throwback to old-school, demonic, bludgeoning metal. Various members and road crew of the UK band Raging Speedhorn decided to form a side project that gave birth to Viking Skull. Guitar tech Roddy Stone, guitarist and gravel voiced singer, is the band’s heart and soul. He’s the one that came up with the idea to recruit RSH’s Darren Smith (guitar) and Gordon Morison (drums), add in mate Kevin Waldie (bass), and play for free beer. It’s no surprise they drink from the same swill as Motörhead, mix in a lethal dose of stoner madness and top it off with Steppenwolf biker acid. This is pure Neanderthal, “knuckles on the ground,” “beat me senseless” metal. The disc starts with “Born In Hell” and closes with “You Can’t Kill Rock and Roll.” Everything in between is about Women - hot women, rode-hard women, bitches, women with dirty holes and women you inject with love. There’s also the occasional mention of drugs and cranked up rock. They even credit their tattoo artist, Wurzel in the liner notes.

Drawing the attention of Carson Daly and Bam Margera's 456 Entertainment, the band has already made their TV debut on Viva La Bands. But it’s their ridiculous lyrics and sledgehammer delivery that really makes them fun. Classic sing-alongs include “Cum on taste the love” (Speedealer), “Crank it up ‘till your speakers explode” (Crank It Up), “True love isn’t good enough/I need a slut with a tight butt” (Saddle Up), and the entire song “Beer, Drugs and Bitches.” They’re all timed with some pretty decent home-cooked AC/DC style guitar riffs. Big and beefy rhythms keep the feet a’tappin’ while hot-wired solos feed the fire. Office favorites are “Frostbite,” “Speeddealer” and the powerhouse anthem “Rock and Roll Suicide.” Best to listen intoxicated while taking up residence at the strip club on the other side of the tracks.

Website: Viking Skull

TOM PETTY
Highway Companion
American Recordings

As Petty nears his 57th birthday, rumors from his camp say the artist is planning to pursue a more relaxed music schedule. He plans to pull back from endless tours and enjoy longer, contemplative moments with his studio efforts. Highway Companion is his third solo effort and eases into the realm of Americana songwriting with poetic and emotional care. In the four years since the master lyricist filled the store shelves with new product, his life has taken a series of peaks and valleys. Of those experiences he pulls twelve to share with his public. The disc is meditative and reflective with only the occasional pop monarch. Most of the songs take a minor progression leaving the listener sedate and melancholy - focused on the lyrics and the timbre of the song.

Mood is key to this record. Opening track and first song to radio, “Saving Grace” balances on a Byrds meets The Band twang complete with balladry organ and a climactic-like build to the chorus. The track is slick and catchy with all the stylistic glory of producer Jeff Lynne. Mike Campbell, the only one of the Heartbreakers that seems to be invited to these sessions, keeps his distance only jumping in with a nod from Petty. The second single to radio “Flirting with Time” hits the mark and balances the theme as a disc packed with road stories played around the campfire. Poetic hybrids like “Square One,” “Down South” and Neil Young-sounding “Night Driver” follow the white line through dusk and into dawn with stories about searching, inner demons and late-night dementia.

The combination of Lynne and Petty is total ear candy. They can construct a hook as beautiful as “The Golden Rose” (which echoes UFO’s “Martian Landscape”) and “This Old Town” with its delicate piano interludes yet never loses sight of the story. Even the pain-soaked “Damaged by Love” and folky “Ankle Deep” revel in polished darker charm. “Turn This Car Around” is closest to a Heartbreakers composition with a muscled up acoustic bridge and an infectious melody. The accomplished “Big Weekend” sits as the real jewel in this batch. Elements of country and folk take this Dylan-esque tale, add some tasteful slide and wrap it around a lyric that’s “pleading for a big weekend/ kick up the dust/if you don’t run you’ll rust.” Or the biblical “cross every border with nothing to declare, you can look back, babe, but it’s best not to stare.”

Highway Companion is beautifully packaged as a pocket digi-pack with a replica leather song booklet complete with printed lyrics and personal shots of Petty and crew.

Websites: Tom Petty, American Recordings

SLAYER
Christ Illusion
American Recordings

Returning to their original Show No Mercy line-up of Tom Araya (vocal, bass), Kerry King (guitar), Jeff Hanneman (guitar) and Dave Lombardo (drums), Slayer proves they can still pack a punch musically and socially. Produced and mixed by acclaimed knob-twiddler Josh Abraham, the record kicks off with a shouting Araya telling us to “Take a deep breath/’Cause it all starts now…” all the while King and Hanneman lock in with their signature chain-saw riffing. Araya is no barking dog - he sings with emotion and clarity. Bands spawned from the loins of Slayer should take note of Araya’s delivery.  This is a pure unadulterated thrash record lyrically attacking a society scabbed with war and the pollution of modern-day theology. Diverse opinions rage as the thunderous backend of Lombardo and Araya join together in scale-tipping density.

16 years has passed since these four guys have banged heads to the symphonic wail of the overlord of darkness. What was once mythological has now become hardcore reality in disturbing blood-stained image broadcast universally by the media. War and terrorism has gripped the globe in a death hold. The unified Slayer blame religious rhetoric and bigotry for this crime. It comes out in every blazing note from the all-consuming “Cult” to the hyperspeed of “Catalyst.” The band make their stance by attacking different viewpoints - there is the soldiers perspective in “Eyes Of The Insane” with Lombardo’s double-kick drumming rumbling along like a assault tank. “Jihad” jumps into the minds of holy war terrorists with guitars churning through jolting rhythms and frantic time changes. With an anvil-like ringing, “Black Serenade” takes a look behind the eyes of a killer try to argue with his dead girlfriend, the one whose neck he just broke.

The adrenalized guitar leads behind each of the record’s 10-tracks are what make the whole thing a complete Slayer experience. King and Hanneman have a way of working out their separate parts with dual purpose. They fashion a tribal-like rhythm then grind out mind-bending solos splitting the songs into sections which gives them more sting. Executive producer Rick Rubin continues to oversee the Slayer sound, a sound he and the band have perfected over their 20 years together. Also, the chemistry of bringing Lombardo back into the fold (he left Slayer after 1990’s Season in the Abyss) is essential to the band’s current wellspring. His presence in “Consfearacy” and “Supremist” not only solidify his position on the drummer’s thrown but show the rest how it is done.

Websites: Slayer, American Recordings