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Another early Japanese metal release. This one a one-off album from an obscure band from Okinawa that were never heard of again. I haven't had much time for the other early Japanese releases I've heard (Bow Wow, Nokemono, Lazy, Loudness, etc.) & this one isn't much better but I'd hazard to suggest that it was probably the best metal-related release to come out of the country to the time. Heavy Metal Army's sound sits somewhere between heavy metal & hard rock & the vocals flip-flop between English & Japanese. The guitar solos of Shinki Sugama are excellent & are a real strength but the most noteworthy component of the Heavy Metal Army sound is the strong use of keyboards which draws comparisons with Deep Purple & Rainbow when it's done well but when it's not it tends to date the material pretty badly.
The tracklisting is quite varied, as is the quality level as this is a highly inconsistent record. It's strange though that they've elected to start the album with the three weakest tracks which got me offside from the get-go. For this reason it took me a couple of listens to get myself into a headspace to appreciate the rest of the album but once I did I found some pretty interesting stuff with the stripped-back progressive rock closer "Bird of Destiny" being the clear highlight. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to save "Heavy Metal Army 1" from obscurity & I can't see myself returning to it even though it definitely has its moments.
For fans of Deep Purple, Scorpions & Rainbow.
I have to admit that New York heavy/power metal legends Virgin Steele’s first couple of albums (1982’s self-titled & 1983’s “Guardians of the Flame”) did very little for me. It wasn’t until I investigated their highly regarded 1995 seventh full-length “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell Part Two” that I uncovered the true qualities that Virgin Steele have to offer but there was still a fair amount of cheese in their sound to offset the chunky power metal riffage & anthemic choruses with the symphonic elements of their sound taking me a little outside my musical comfort zone. The experience was positive overall though so I thought I’d give 1994’s “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell Part One” a crack to see how it compares.
I feel very similarly about this record in my ways as it sports most of the same character traits. The powerful metal riffage is further highlighted by a stellar production job for this style of metal with the music seemingly jumping out of the speakers & forcing your head to bang up & down. This is a very metal album in that regard it has to be said. Edward Pursino’s lead guitar work is brilliantly composed & executed & just listen to how memorable some of these choruses are! They’re tailor-made for raising your metal claws to the sky & singing along with your drunken mates thanks to some highly memorable hooks. David DeFeis’ voice is simply wonderful as he sports an enormous amount of power & emotion, not to mention the fact that he challenges Manowar’s Eric Adams in the epic stakes.
But in saying all that, the album also contains some of the same hindrances as it’s younger sibling. Despite four or five tracks hinting at classic status, none manage to pull it off in their entirety in my opinion with most containing a cheesy bridge or guitar solo section to pull things back to just a very solid level rather than allowing the song-writing to scale the heights of a genuinely transcendent one. The tracklisting is also noticeably top heavy with all of the best material residing on the A side. When Virgin Steele decide to explore their more melodic side with some more commercially accessible ballads & symphonic interludes we find them overstepping the cheese line in no uncertain terms & those tracks are inevitably the weaker moments on the record. They remind me very much of Savatage’s more self-indulgent efforts in that regard.
Overall I see “The Marriage of Heaven & Hell Part One” as another missed opportunity for Virgin Steele. All of the components are in place to make this a pinnacle of heavy metal but they somehow manage to squander that potential through their own indulgences. With a run time that exceeds 70 minutes, I have to suggest that a bit of culling could have added another half star to my rating but as it stands I’d still say that this is my new favourite Virgin Steele release as it possesses more highlight tracks & a touch less cheese than its more widely praised successor.
For fans of Jag Panzer, Omen & Manowar.
2001 was the year nu metal fully conquered the world, pushing heavier music to the mainstream and reaching all new heights of popularity. Sadly though, it was a fad that wouldn't last, and any band looking to make an impact had to strike while the iron was hot. For every Disturbed, there was a dozen Spineshank's, for every Korn, there were multiple Adema's. With a cult following building since their 1999 debut, it was now-or-never for Static-X. Go hard or go home.
Which brings us to 'Machine'.
A huge step up from its predecessor, Wayne Static and his ragtag misfits are back with this crushingly brutal yet innocently simplistic assault on the senses. 14 year-old me had never heard anything so aggressive, and to this day, it still amazes me how an album so stripped bare can be so heavy. Sure, it's overproduced to hell and back, with various electronic tracks and effects giving the album such a massive and fat sound, but the compositions themselves are all very laid back, with basic arrangements, no overly complex passages, and barely more than three or four chords in any one song.
It's a classic case of "less is more". And in a case of great timing, the album was released during nu metal's heyday, ensuring it would appeal to a new generation of young metal fans that were introduced to the genre by bands such as Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit.
Overall, 'Machine' is an incredibly polished release, with a great sound and some infectious tracks. In particular, 'Otsego Undead', 'Structural Defect', '...In a Bag', 'Machine', and the two hit singles 'Cold' and 'Black and White', are all standout moments that helped firmly establish Static-X as one of the bands that would outlast the nu metal fad, and more importantly, one of the heaviest bands from my childhood.
For most this probably won't be worth the money. If you want to check out Dream Theater, you'd buy ‘Images and Words’ or ‘Scenes from a Memory’. However, if you ever wondered what Master of Puppets might sound like with Keyboards (and who hasn't?) then this is the album for you.
Of course, that won't stop people from buying it and whining about what it is, but the thing is, this isn't an album to be taken seriously. Are Dream Theater superior musicians from a technical standpoint? Absolutely! Is James Hetfield a better singer than James LaBrie? It's debatable. Does Hetfield's vocals suit this album better than LaBrie's? Most likely.
Who cares? It's Dream Theater having some fun and covering a Metallica album live. Take it for what it is, although, avoid it completely unless you're an absolute die-hard fan of Dream Theater who needs everything in their collection. And who isn't?
Russian Atmospheric Black Metal and I have never quite seen eye to eye, as most of the records I've heard from the region put a huge emphasis on massive, bleak soundscapes without much variation or progression in between. I've been routinely impressed by the polish and modernity of recent Atmospheric Black Metal bands in their attempt to bring some clarity and solid production value to the table, but this is a very fickle genre where intelligibility doesn't necessarily equate to captivating atmospheres. Epitimia's fifth full album Thread tries its best to separate itself from its contemporaries and lure me in with its heartfelt acoustic guitar passages that blend extremely well with its warmer and more reflective sounding Black Metal sections. The album's overall progression from its darker and more aggressive tremolo chords in "Downfall" and "Infirmity" to some truly beautiful sections in the second half of "Vale of Tears" and a general tonal shift on the closer "The Tree" shows that Epitimia put a lot of care and effort towards the album experience. The experience of sitting through that progression, however, is a bit more rocky.
Despite the acoustic portions feeling expressive and complementary to the main, Black Metal attraction, I can't find too much to say about the meat of this album. The riffing, drumming, vocals, and overall ideas are fairly standard on Thread and, while that makes it far from a poor album, it leaves a lot to be desired for a good portion of the album's runtime. I love the incorporation of the ghostly sounding background melodies after the acoustic interlude on "Downfall" and the pretty guitar layering on the final quarter of "Vale of Tears", but I quickly become disinterested when Epitimia decides to pivot to straight up Black Metal. The assertive mixing of the guitars and vocals leaves the drumming in the background gathering dust sometimes, which is a shame because sounds perfect in the softer sections. The vocals can sometimes feel few and far between, which is a huge plus for me as I can't say I'm a fan of how much space the spoken-word Black Metal gnarling takes up. There are one or two standout riffs in Thread, mostly coming from "Infirmity", but most of this album's charm comes from the interplay between the atmosphere the softer, acoustic parts create and how the Black Metal parts follow up on it. Epitimia are able to write some fantastic transitionary moments between these two idea structures, especially in "The Tree", but there isn't too much else to keep the listener interested once that impact wears off. I think Thread is a unique enough album to warrant a listen from Black Metal fans who are looking for something a bit more pleasant and hospitable, but I can't see myself going back to it too often.