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Posts Tagged ‘Black Sabbath’

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TRACKLISTING:
1. QXP-13 Space Modulator (3:49)
2. Eat a Bag of DiX (5:08)
3. Hapax Legomena (4:47)
4. Nocturne, op.33 (4:15)
5. The Cascades (6:37)
6. Snack(s) – The Song! (7:12)
7. Osedax (6:16)
8. Mymaridae (6:25)
9. Variety Pack (2:52)
10.Fairies Wear Boots (7:35)

LINEUP:
Wally Scharold – electric and acoustic guitars, vocals, programming, clapping, keyboards, synths
Travis Andrews – electric and acoustic guitars, baritone guitar, vocals
Carolyn Walter – clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone sax, bassoon
Jamison Smeltz – alto sax, baritone sax, clapping
Matt Lebofsky – bass, vocals, keyboards, guitars, junk drums
Matt Guggemos – drums

In the late spring of 2009, the debut album of a hitherto unknown band from Oakland (California), by the idiosyncratically-spelled name of miRthkon, made waves on the progressive rock scene. A monumental, 70-minute slab of quirky, Zappaesque avant-progressive rock with a healthy dose of metal-inspired energy and intriguing references to contemporary classical music –  a package rounded out by outstanding artwork and a wacky background mythology – Vehicle was mentioned by many (including myself) in their personal “best of 2009” lists. Once again, Marcello Marinone and his AltrOck Productions cohorts had unearthed a gem.

Founded around 2005 by guitarist/composer Wally Scharold, miRthkon went through the customary stages of upheaval (and the release of EP The Joy of Illusion) before stabilizing their lineup. With two new members on board – guitarist Travis Andrews and bassist/keyboardistMatt Lebofsky (also a member of Secret Chiefs 3 and MoeTar) replacing Rob Pumpelly and Nat Hawkes – the band are a solid six-piece propelled by a twin-guitar and twin-reed attack that sets them apart from almost everyone else. A quintessential live outfit, they have recently managed to bring their unique brand of progressive rock to Europe. Indeed, after Scharold recovered from some health issues that had forced the band to cancel the second half of their 2012 tour with MoeTar, 2013 has proved to be very good year for miRthkon as a live act, with successful appearances at the first edition of Seaprog in Seattle, the 2013 edition of the Rock in Opposition Festival in Carmaux, and a one-day festival organized by the AltrOck staff in Milan. In addition to their busy concert schedule, the band have spent a good part of the past few years working on the follow-up to Vehicle – a full-length album by the title of Snack(s), which was finally released in the autumn of 2013, following the band’s European tour.

Though miRthkon are anything but your conventional “nostalgia prog” band, they seem to have learned an important lesson from the genre’s golden age: that is, the importance of the visual aspect. Their albums are not just challenging sonic buffets of wide-ranging eclecticism, but also visual feasts that display another facet of Wally Scharold’s considerable talent. Snack(s)’s artwork is a true stroke of genius,  a parody of modern society’s addiction to junk food, with the cover and each page of the booklet imitating the packaging of some popular snacks, down to the mandatory (in the US at least) nutritional breakdown – which contains detailed information about each track, including the daunting time signatures, as well as the lyrics cleverly disguised as “ingredients”. Not your average Roger Dean opus for sure, but extremely well-made, and hugely entertaining.

Though it might raise eyebrows, the “avant-garde metal” tag that has been attached to miRthkon is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The combination of deadpan humour and highbrow references is far from uncommon in the world of technical/avant-garde metal, though miRthkon take it up a notch and imbue their heady genre-bending blend with the jazz-tinged energy of Carolyn Walter and Jamison Smeltz’s array of reeds. Indeed, Snack(s) is the kind of album that will keep you on the edge of your seat, not knowing if that low-key, almost conventionally melodic passage will erupt into chaos (albeit of the controlled variety) in just a couple of seconds. Most of the album’s 10 tracks were written by either Scharold or Lebovsky, with the notable exception of an unrecognizable version of Samuel Barber’s piano piece “Nocturne” (which was part of the band’s setlist at the Orion Studios in August 2012), and a similarly idiosyncratic cover of Black Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots”.

Compared to Vehicle, Snack(s) is more focused (also in virtue of being almost 15 minutes shorter) and also somewhat heavier, though losing none of the compositional complexity that had made miRthkon’s debut so riveting. Crushingly heavy guitar riffs coexist with joyfully blaring reeds in the exhilarating jazz-metal blend tinged with ska (of all things!) of opener “QXP-13 Space Modulator”, a hyper-energetic instrumental that prepares the listener for the mind-boggling twists and turns of “Eat a Bag of DiX”, which juxtaposes brooding chamber-like sections with electrifying guitar forays and almost punk vocals. “Hapax Legomena” ’s deceptively laid-back, jazzy intro soon turns into a bracing duel between guitars and reeds; while wistful clarinet keeps the classical flavour in “Nocturne”, though offset by the guitars and spiked by an odd reggae-like rhythm. The first half of the album ends with the angular yet atmospheric heaviness (and rather apocalyptic lyrics) of “The Cascades”, enhanced by the organic sound of the glockenspiel, organ and piano.

Eerie electronic effects and upbeat, anthemic singing pepper the 7-minute “Snack(s) – The Song!”, driven by Matt Guggemos’ spectacular drumming and reeds blaring in unison. The sinuous, faintly disturbing first half of “Osedax” again brings melody into the equation, with haunting clarinet and a brief yet striking bass-guitar duet followed by a choppy, drum-driven section complete with shouting vocals at the end. After the maze-like complexity of the multilayered “Mymaridae”- whose inexhaustible intensity evokes a swarm of the titular “microscopic parasitic wasps” in a textbook example of controlled chaos – the less than 3 minutes of the bassoon-led “Variety Pack” provide a short but welcome oasis of calm before the grand finale. The longest track on the album, miRthkon’s take on “Fairies Wear Boots” keeps the spirit of the original even in its “deconstructive” approach, replacing Tony Iommi’s iconic riffing with a spirited double baritone sax attack, and Scharold channeling his inner Ozzy Osbourne in a very aggressive vocal turn.

The somewhat clichéd expression “not for the faint-hearted” seems to have been tailor-made for miRthkon. Snack(s), just like the band’s live shows, is a constant adrenaline rush, with only occasional moments of respite, and therefore not very likely to make a dent in the convictions of those who equate prog with lush melodies and grandiose, quasi-symphonic arrangements. Such intense music, almost relentless at times, may require a lot of concentration on the part of the listener. In any case, Snack(s) is one of the most original albums released in 2013, and a must-listen for fans of truly progressive, challenging music. Highly recommended to anyone wishing to step out of their comfort zone.

Links:
http://www.mirthkon.com/

http://mirthkon.bandcamp.com/album/snack-s

http://www.altrock.it

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TRACKLISTING:
1. Neon Knights (3:54)
2. Children of the Sea (5:35)
3. Lady Evil (4:26)
4. Heaven and Hell (6.59)
5. Wishing Well (4.08)
6. Die Young (4:46)
7. Walk Away (4:26)
8. Lonely Is the Word (5:53)

LINEUP:
Ronnie James Dio – vocals
Tony Iommi – guitar
Geezer Butler – bass
Bill Ward – drums
Geoff Nichols – keyboards

Though I generally try to be as unbiased as possible in my reviews, in this particular occasion I will have to let objectivity take a back seat, because Heaven and Hell, Black Sabbath’s ninth album, is one of my top 10 albums of all time. As my faithful readers should know by now, even if the majority of the music I review can be placed under the extensive ‘progressive rock’ umbrella, my listening tastes are quite eclectic, and I do have quite a soft spot for what might be termed ‘classic heavy metal’. Indeed, Heaven and Hell is a masterpiece of the genre, signaling the band’s return to sparkling form after the severe decline shown by their late Seventies albums

At the beginning of the new decade, Sabbath underwent what could be called a total makeover. Gone was the muddy, uncertain sound a of their earlier albums, to be replaced by Martin Birch’s state-of-the-art, crystal-clear production, which allowed every instrument to shine – not just Geezer Butler’s and Bill Ward’s thunderous rhythm section or Tony Iommi’s legendary riffing, but especially new guy Ronnie James Dio’s awe-inspiring roar. The latter’s addition  made the real difference in the band’s performance: though Ozzy’s distinctive, eerie wail had been Black Sabbath’s trademark  since the beginning of their career, Dio (who had left Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow to join the band) was something else completely. Such changes obviously altered the band’s sound in a rather substantial way, so that  Heaven and Hell sounds quite unlike their Seventies output – less chillingly menacing, more crushingly powerful, yet also more accessible.

The hard-driving “Neon Knights” (one of the strongest opening tracks ever) sounds like a statement of intent right from the start, brimming with Iommi’s towering guitar riffs and Dio’s soaring bellow. Things slow down for the following number, the epic, doom-laden “Children of the Sea” – one of Dio’s career-defining vocal performances together with Rainbow’s “Stargazer”.  On the other hand, “Lady Evil” is a catchy, uptempo song, punctuated by Butler’s booming, dynamic bass lines, which provides a respite of sorts before the monumental title-track – strategically placed at the end of Side A when the album was originally released.

A concert classic for both Dio-era Black Sabbath and its unfortunately short-lived, eponymous band, “Heaven and Hell” is a crushingly heavy cavalcade bolstered by Butler’s thundering bass and Iommi’s manic riffing, with Dio’s voice soaring and swooping above the din in true epic style. As a sort of release of tension, another catchy tune follows, the almost poppy “Wishing Well” (no relation to the Free song of the same title).   “Die Young” can instead be counted as another of the album’s highlights – a powerful, keyboard-laden hard rocker, it sees another cracking vocal performance from Dio, enhanced by Iommi’s  sterling guitar work.

While the slightly nondescript “Walk Away” is, in my view, the only track   that approaches filler status, the album is wrapped up by another memorable number.  “Lonely Is the Word” most closely resembles Sabbath’s earlier output with Ozzy – a sinister slice of doom driven by Iommi’s iconic riffing,  while Dio’s vocals sound pleading and commanding in turn. The wistful yet intense guitar solo at the end of the song is undoubtedly one of Iommi’s finest moments.

Originally released on April 25, 1980, Heaven and Hell  is still revered by rock fans, even though the younger generations of metal fans may find it  somewhat lightweight if compared with the output of the countless extreme metal acts flooding the current scene.  While it  does contain occasional progressive touches, it  was never as influential to the development of prog-metal as Black Sabbath’s Ozzy-era offerings. The presence of a few catchy tunes might also put off some purists, who might find the likes of  “Lady Evil” o “Wishing Well” too close to AOR for comfort.

All this criticism notwithstanding, Heaven and Hell is one of the milestone releases of the past 40 years, and one of the greatest vocal albums in the history of rock. As well as being a celebration of the album’s 31st anniversary, this review is meant as a homage to Ronnie James Dio, who passed away almost a year ago, on May 16, 2010. Together with Rainbow’s Rising, this album was possibly Ronnie’s finest hour.

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