Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Soldiers Just Came Back!

BLACK WIDOW USA – “Soldiers From Hell” CD ’08 (Private, US) – One thing I can tell you is that I’m Ray. Surprised? Don’t be, I have been all my life. See, I’m not Nostradamus. That’s not even my middle name. Hmm…Ray Nostradamus Dorsey….Well, I digress. Point is, while I may not be history’s most legendary prognosticator, I do know some things ahead of time. At least, I’m pretty sure of ‘em. For instance, new BIBLE OF THE DEVIL album comes out, top-shelf ass-kicker. The 2nd COLOSSUS album will come out and the world will be kneeling before the entire state of North Carolina. New IRON RIDGE bluegrass album comes out, all stringed instrument players weep. The 2nd BLACK WIDOW USA disc hits the streets and…well…um…this prophet didn’t have an answer. See, BWU’s first effort “Satan’s Playground” showed up in a local CD store a few years ago and, noticing a metal band with a Baltimore imprint, I decided to snag it. It was pretty good, nothing to write ma about, but decent ‘80’s style metal (think “British Steel” Priest without the production values, a bit of Maiden, a touch of Iced Earth). I was pretty unimpressed, though, by lead singer Cat. To me, her voice had a kinda nasaly, annoying quality that actually detracted from the rest of the music. But, in the way Ray’s mind works, I filed the band’s name away until just last week, when ambling around the same audio emporium, I spied a brand new effort by BLACK WIDOW USA. I picked it up…sat it back down…picked it up…sat it back down…finally, I said, “You know what, it’s only $ 9.99, let’s see what’s happened with this bunch.” Turns out a lot! In truth, “a lot” may be the understatement of the year, for, in my 40-some years of listening to music, there haven’t been many times I’ve heard a band and, in particular, a vocalist make such dramatic strides. Seriously, after my initial listen to “Soldiers From Hell,” I went back and re-listened to “Satan’s Playground” and shook my head in admiration because “SFH” sounded for all the world like it would’ve come 2 or 3 (or 4!) albums after that initial effort, rather than next. To begin with, the first thing that hits you is the production here. While the first record sounded ok, “Soldiers…” sports the kind of in-your-face full-metal sound that was born in the early ‘80’s and could have names like Tsangrides or Birch tacked to it’s lapel. The drums are cacophonous without being too arena-like and John Anthony’s guitar has that awesome BC Rich/Charvel kinda crunch that was so cool back in the day. And, speaking of guitar, John has really stepped up his game on this disc. All through the album, he laces the tracks with copious amounts of melody and lead, especially his work in the lengthy title cut, where he gives you a real feeling of…hm, let’s say Mark Shelton playing Tipton’s solo from “Run Of The Mill.” The songs themselves see the ante upped once again, seeing the band emerge with deep chorus hooks and melodies that will stay alive for the listener a long time. Listen to practically anything here, “Comfort In The Dark,” “The Serpent” and the aforementioned 11 ½ minute “Soldiers From Hell.” This is damn good stuff. So, last but not least we come to Cat’s vocals. I cannot stress, once again, the kind of job this lady has done here. She has taken her vocals and done what can be only be called a mammoth job in raising the bar to where I honestly have to say this is one of the best female-fronted metal albums I’ve heard in many a year. Listen to her work throughout and tell me if she does not sound like a completely powerful and yet feminine take on Manilla Road’s great Mark Shelton. One of the greatest things to me, in writing about music, is watching a musician apply themselves and do something completely special and Cat has done just that here. My friends, there is very little else for me to staple, lash or tie to this review. The bottom line is that if you like’80’s metal, and want to hear one of the truly most UN-trendy records you’ll spin all year, buy this now! 9.5
NOTE: BLACK WIDOW USA is from Baltimore MD (yeah, hometown!) and if you’re from around here, their disc can be purchased at The Sound Garden in Fells Point.

GREY DATURAS – “Return To Disruption” CD ’08 (Neurot, Australia) – Aussies, GREY DATURAS are noted for not practicing…just getting together to play and create soundscapes that combine drone, scathing aural assaults and such. And what they have created here are…drone, scathing aural assaults and such. See, that’s the problem. Whereas a collective such as Sunn O))) makes this kind of music interesting by interspersing captivating sign-posts along their journeys upon which they then embellish, GREY DATURAS simply make varying degrees of noise. That can be ok in passing, but it does nothing to make me want to come back for a repeat. Boring. 3.0

GRAAL – “Tales Untold” CD ’07 (BloodRock/Black Widow, Ita) – From Italy comes a band called GRAAL and their debut effort has just reached my desk, although it came out in 2007. Better late than never, and I’m glad I finally got it because these guys are pretty dang good. Through a series of lengthy cuts, GRAAL issues a nice brand of ‘70’s style hard rock, filled to the brim with Wishbone Ash-like guitar harmonies, dashes of keys and throaty vocals that cast a nostalgic eye to a day gone by. The only minor complaint to me is that numbers such as “After,” “Silver Wings” and “Knife Edge” would have an even stronger impact were the production here something that called more to mind the work of Roger Bain than the apparent modern studio values. Still, that’s a relatively minor gripe when it comes to a damn enjoyable slice of hard rock. 7.5

PRESENCE – “Evil Rose” CD ’08 (Black Widow, Ita) – Mention the word “PRESENCE” around a bunch of rock/metal aficionados and more than likely, you’ll get a host of opinions on one of Led Zeppelin’s heaviest albums. It’s actually my favourite Zep piece as well. Still, I wonder how many people are aware that there’s an Italian band called PRESENCE who have released not 1, not 2…but 6 albums, the latest of which has just seen the light of day on Black Widow Records. Does PRESENCE sound like Led Zeppelin? No, not at all, but as much as I like Page, Percy & crew, that’s not a bad thing because this 3-piece surely has their own deal goin’ on. Composed of Sophya Baccini (vocals, piano), Sergio Casamassima (guitars) and Enrico Iglio (keys, multi-instrumentalist) PRESENCE has a sound that is progressive at it’s very core. I say that because this bunch definitely is not any kind of Genesis, Gentle Giant or Yes clone, no siree, they really don’t sound like anybody else in particular. That’s not to say that there aren’t some nice frames of reference. PRESENCE turns on musical dimes, but not necessarily in the chaotic, neck-snapping sense. More so, they morph from overdriven metal chords lain down by Casamassima to ethereal, dark washes of sound generated by Iglio. Through these chameleon-like movements, Baccini’s vocals float, bob and weave, almost like Kate Bush if she had maybe one Valium. This carries through a series of songs that are very long (“Cassandra” 7:03, “Orphic” 10:39, “Evil Rose” 18:35!!!) but never over-stay their welcome. If there’s any drawback to this album, I’d have to say that I’d prefer the production to have slightly more balls but this is a fairly minor gripe and I have to remember that everything shouldn’t sound like new Metallica with Rick Rubin at the knobs. In all, if you’re interested in music that is certainly progressive and heavy in both sound & mood, your PRESENCE is requested. 8.0

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