Random album reviews

Sumerlands - Dreamkiller (2022)

Six years after their self-titled debut album, this Philadelphia-based metal band returned for their sophomore effort with a new singer and a heavy dose of mid-80s nostalgia.
  • Twilight Points The Way - Synths and a bouncy riff create a tone reminiscent of Ozzy Osbourne's "Shot In The Dark". Some sweet guitar leads join in, then break into a driving verse. New singer Brendan Radigan isn't a clone of Ozzy, but there are definitely some similarities in timbre that come out here. A brief interlude leads into a more pensive pre-chorus and a simple but memorable chorus. Another round of verse and pre-chorus, then a nice melodic breakdown flows into a cool vocal bridge and a sweet melodic solo. A final round of choruses gets some nice guitar and synth flourishes before a tasteful outro. This song wears its influences on its sleeve, but it's great stuff. 8/10.
  • Heavens Above - The previous track cuts right into this one, which has a more laid back groove. Some tasty lead work gives way to a nice melodic verse and a tenser pre-chorus, then a solid chorus. A couple of key changes drive a brief interlude and vocal bridge, leading into a tasteful solo. Another round of verse through chorus, then a mellow synth and guitar interlude eventually calls back to the bridge and a soft landing on the title vocal. Solidly good, 7/10.
  • Dreamkiller - A drum intro breaks into a very power-metalish synth and guitar riff before settling into a more traditional, driving rhythm. A great soaring verse leads into a tension-building interlude and brief pre-chorus before blossoming into a big memorable chorus. A great fiery solo follows, leading into an extended harmonized guitar section that feels halfway between early Helloween and early Queensrÿche. Another verse, then we jump directly back to the chorus and some more fiery soloing. A punchy guitar instrumental follows, suddenly switching gears into an interesting backward guitar lead that fades away to end the track. Lots of excellent parts here, but some of the power metal bits feel a little out of place, dragging this down slightly to an 8/10.
  • Night Ride - A synth pad carries us from the previous track into this one. A laid back groove with pulsing bass fades in, supporting a strong verse. This leads into a great pre-chorus that somehow manages to stay pretty calm while still cranking up the tension, breaking into a bigger, more forceful chorus and an epic solo. Another round of verse through chorus, then the laid back groove returns and gradually fades away into synth tones. Mostly great, though there are a few noticeable similarities to "Heavens Above" throughout this track, which is unfortunate. Still, I think this track is the superior version of the song and probably does enough to round it up to an 8/10.
  • Edge Of The Knife - A sweet riff with percussive accents rises out of the noise, leading into a solid verse and a great pre-chorus. Another round of verse and pre-chorus, then we break into a strong chorus that borrows heavily from the Scorpions' "No One Like You". A high-quality solo rolls back into another round of verse through chorus, now with extra vocal harmonies. A cool but brief vocal bridge is overtaken by more fiery soloing, leading back into a variant chorus and a reprise of the intro to close things out. Great stuff, 8/10.
  • Force Of A Storm - Pulsing synth breaks into another driving riff that gives off that "Shot In The Dark" feeling. A strong melodic verse leads into an OK pre-chorus and chorus. Another verse and pre-chorus, then a brief interlude breaks back into the chorus and some new variations on it before a short solo leads into a quick outro. There are definitely some good parts here, but the song feels a little half-baked in the end. 6/10.
  • The Savior's Lie - Vaguely industrial sounds give way to a somewhat confused guitar melody. This eventually breaks into a slow, memorable verse and a big atmospheric pre-chorus, but a pretty flaccid chorus. Another round of verse and pre-chorus, then we get a pretty busy and interesting synth solo and a slow but strong vocal bridge, leading into a pretty great guitar solo and a final title vocal before ending with an intro reprise. Some really strong parts but some obvious weaknesses too, so let's say 6/10.
  • Death To Mercy - An upbeat riff with synth accompaniment leads into a brief interlude and a solid verse and pre-chorus. Another round of verse and pre-chorus builds into an OK chorus. Another verse leads into a cool variant pre-chorus and a nice series of melodic solos before returning to the chorus. Strong tradeoff solos carry us through an extended fade-out, being replaced by ambient synths to close out the song. Pretty good, probably does enough to round it up to a 7/10.
Average: 7.3/10
Weighted: 7.3/10

Overall this is a very good throwback album, and half the songs are great. The singer and the guitars are consistently strong, and if you like mid-80s Ozzy and Scorpions, this is probably in your sweet spot.

That said, I think the album makes a stronger first impression, then wanes a bit with repeated listens. It's also front-loaded with the best tracks, so it runs out of steam a bit as you go, and there's some unfortunate sameyness between some of the songs that creeps in as you get more familiar with them. And it's a very short 35 minutes, which you may see as a positive or a negative.

I saw this album mentioned in a lot of music sites' "Best of 2022" lists, and I can kind of see why it wound up there if the reviewers hadn't heard this particular slice of mid-80s style in a while; but I have a feeling it won't be placing quite so high for me against its immediate contemporaries. Still, it's an enjoyable album that I have continued to come back to several times.

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Megadeth - The Sick, The Dying...And The Dead! (2022)

Six years after the Grammy award winning Dystopia, the latest line-up of the veteran thrash band returns for their second album (and the band's sixteenth overall), after once again dropping founding member and part-time internet exhibitionist David Ellefson.
  • The Sick, The Dying...And The Dead! - A tolling bell and a call to "bring out your dead" intros a melancholy guitar lead that eventually breaks into a peppy, complex midtempo riff with cool harmony bits. This leads into a pretty memorable pair of verses, then an unexpected soft bridge with acoustic accompaniment. We return to the verse, then get a strong pre-chorus before a rhythmic guitar interlude that shifts into a nice harmonized section and a strong solo. This leads into what I guess is the chorus ("Die, die, die!"), which is pretty good, and builds up nicely to a quick finish on the title lyric. A very good track overall, and I like the odd song structure. This probably does enough to round it up to an 8/10.
  • Life In Hell - A fast, thrashy riff drives some solid verses punctuated by guitar and drum breakdowns. This breaks into a good but short chorus followed by a fiery solo. Another round of verse and chorus, then things slow down a bit for an extended spoken word bridge. Another verse, then a variant chorus carries us to a final drum breakdown to close out the track. Good stuff, 7/10.
  • Night Stalkers - Ominous synths lead into a very fast but not very interesting verse riff. Mustaine rambles out verse lyrics like he's a bit bored and not trying to make them fit the song rhythmically. A nice harmonized lead break cuts into a much more appealing chorus with a slightly slower feel. Another round of verses, harmonized leads, and chorus, then we get an atmospheric bridge with a spoken word section by Ice T, which rolls into a queasy and frankly pretty bad vocal bridge from Mustaine. A great multi-part solo follows, rolling back into the chorus, then an unexpected transition into a nice acoustic guitar and synth interlude. A solo bass line is joined by guitars before returning to the verse, then shifting into an extended instrumental outro. This is a really uneven track, with some great parts and some mediocre-to-bad ones. On balance I guess that would put it at about a 6/10.
  • Dogs Of Chernobyl - Wind chimes and more ominous synths break into a sad acoustic guitar intro with sound effects suggesting the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. This is eventually punctuated by distorted guitar accents, then rolls into a fairly pedestrian verse riff with some more bored off-rhythm vocals from Mustaine. Slide guitar breaks up the verses, then flows into a much more interesting riff and solid vocal melody for the chorus. A nice melodic lead follows, dropping back into the ho-hum verses and the better chorus. This kicks into a driving extended spoken word bridge broken up by some cool soloing, eventually ending on some more atmospheric sound effects. Another very uneven track with some cool ideas and odd structure. Let's say another 6/10.
  • Sacrifice - A machine gun guitar intro breaks into a solid verse riff. Mustaine delivers his most bored and poorly phrased verse vocal yet. (WTF is with this weird fantasy lyric shit? It's pretty off-brand for Megadeth.) The guitar bits that break up the verses are cool at least. A multi-part guitar interlude leads back into more cringey verses. Another short interlude and then we get a frankly awful chorus from Mustaine that gets slightly better toward the end. A great solo and another brief interlude lead into a variant verse which is a bit better, but then it's back to the terrible chorus before a machine gun guitar & drum outro. If it weren't for the often great guitar work in this track I'd rate it even lower, but this one's clearly a dud. 4/10.
  • Junkie - A quick effect-laden vocal intro breaks into a pretty strong verse and pre-chorus, then a reasonably memorable chorus. Another round of verse through chorus, then we get a brief spoken-word bridge and a sweet multi-part extended solo. This rolls back into some variant choruses punctuated by guitar leads before a quick finish. Finally, another good track. 7/10.
  • Psychopathy - A very short percussive interlude with spoken word from Mustaine on top. Good for what it is, 7/10.
  • Killing Time - A pretty good verse vocal is delivered on top of an unremarkable riff. This breaks into a solid chorus with better guitar work. Another round of verse and chorus, then we get a nice acoustic guitar break joined by some darker distorted guitar that flows into a cool series of melodic leads before returning to the chorus. This eventually twists into a darker variant chorus with lots of guitar flourishes before a quick finish on the title lyric. Good but not great, 7/10.
  • Soldier On! - A percussive riff underpins a solid verse. This leads into a good pre-chorus and a catchy chorus. A melodic lead carries us back to another round of verse through chorus. I like the rhythmic change-ups that sometimes happen under the chorus here. A solid harmonized interlude flows into a strong pair of solos, then a quick atmospheric breather leads back into the pre-chorus and chorus before a bizarre military march call and response outro. Another strong track that doesn't really knock anything out of the park. 7/10.
  • Célebutante - An atmospheric, melodic distorted guitar intro breaks into a lively, odd-rhythm riff. A driving verse flows seamlessly into a strong pre-chorus and a simple chorus. Another round of verse through chorus, then we get a crunchier interlude and a big melodic vocal bridge with acoustic and harmonized guitars. A sweet riff reminiscent of "The Skull Beneath The Skin" supports a second vocal bridge, then we get a calmer interlude with a nice melodic lead, a reprise of that sweet riff, then some great soloing to close out the track. Consistently very strong with great instrumental work and another odd song structure, I feel comfortable giving this one an 8/10.
  • Mission To Mars - A bass & synth intro is gradually joined by guitars, creating a great sinister atmosphere. This pulls back for some computer and airlock sound effects, then kicks into an appealing verse riff with some uneven and sometimes cringey vocals ("I wanna...I wanna be an astronaut"). This breaks into a brief but strong pre-chorus and an even stronger chorus (minus the dopey lyrics). Another round of verse through chorus, then we get an extended multi-part instrumental with a bunch of cringey astronaut voiceover, eventually fading away on "mission failure". This track's a disappointment, because it starts off very strong musically (arguably the catchiest stuff on the record), but the lyrics and dinner theater that follow really drag everything down in the end. On balance I guess I'd round it up to a 6/10.
  • We'll Be Back - A fast, thrashy riff kicks into a driving verse that's a little too reminiscent of "Black Friday". Some nice soloing rolls back into the verse, then blossoms into a memorable chorus with some weirdly weak response vocals. A pair of fiery solos return to the verse, then more soloing, then another round of verse and chorus. A rhythmic interlude is joined by some melodic lead work, then some dissonant chords and alternating solos and rhythm work before a quick finish. There's a lot a great stuff here with some minor weaknesses, but I think I can round it up to an 8/10.
Average: 6.8/10
Weighted: 6.7/10

This album, while generally pretty good, is still a very mixed bag. Kiko and Dirk sound great and bring a lot of variety and spice to the proceedings. The song structures are often unique, usually in a good way. And Mustaine can still bring it when he wants to -- but unfortunately, he often sounds bored and uninspired here, and some of the tracks have really cringe-inducing lyrics.

Another issue is the quality arc of the album. It does a steady nosedive from the opener to the middle of the record, and "Sacrifice" often lands badly enough to bounce me off the record entirely. Which is a shame, because the second half of the album is more consistent and has some great stuff on it.

As with Dystopia there are flashes of brilliance here, and a lot of good material, but it doesn't quite come together into the great album that this band should totally be capable of making.

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Seventh Storm - Maledictus (2022)

In 2022 Mike Gaspar, the former drummer of the Portuguese gothic metal band Moonspell, released the debut album from his new band Seventh Storm. This record is built on a backbone of 90s nu metal (think Godsmack, if they were actually good), but it's fused with a shockingly broad cross section of metal subgenres, including folk, neoclassical, power, prog, melodeath, black, and doom. All the vocals are melodic, though there’s a coarser texture to them.
  • Pirate's Curse - Blowing wind and a hearty scream give way to thick, harmonized midtempo guitars that support a strong verse. This flows into a rolling, memorable pre-chorus 1 and a raspier and less effective pre-chorus 2. A synth and guitar interlude follows, then the music falls away and slowly builds back up into a strong, moody chorus that alternates between heaviness and a lighter feel with acoustic guitars and flute. This suddenly swerves into a screamy interlude with cut-time drumming, then rolls back through pre-chorus 1 before delivering a nice melodic solo. This eventually dissolves into a percussive humming interlude before returning to an even bigger rendition of the chorus and an extended vocal and synth outro. Good stuff, a very robust 7/10.
  • Saudade - Waves and singing guitars are broken by a slow, melancholy groove with synth bell accents. A nice melodic lead breaks into a more urgent riff, then a frenetic verse. A memorable pre-chorus builds up into a big, catchy chorus. The urgent riff carries us back into another round of verse through chorus, then a more pensive variant chorus. A big scream and more frenetic guitar and drums lead into a great melodic solo, suddenly falling back into an a capella bridge that gains some piano accompaniment before bursting back into the chorus and its variant. A reprise of the soft bridge closes out the track. Great song, 8/10.
  • Sarpanit - Ominous synths welcome layers of female vocals with a middle eastern flavor. These are soon joined by acoustic guitar to complete the mood, eventually fading away on a ringing note. A short but very sweet mood setter, 8/10.
  • Gods Of Babylon - The theme of "Sarpanit" is immediately reprised here, suddenly breaking into frenetic trilling guitar and cut-time drumming. A quick breakdown, and then this cuts into a thrashy riff with some harmonization that morphs into a slower-paced nu metal riff to support a great verse 1 and a more gristly verse 2. A strong pre-chorus builds up into a big, soaring chorus. The trilling guitar and drums carry us back through another round of verses through chorus, then we get a nice instrumental break before a throatier variant chorus. The "Sarpanit" theme returns for a bit, then we get a huge melodic solo that becomes more and more fiery as it goes on. The pot-banging drums return to support some "woah-ohs", then the thrashy riff returns to propel us through some more variant permutations of the chorus before a quick finish. Always great and often excellent, I think this one deserves a round-up to 9/10.
  • The Reckoning - The sounds of thunder and rain are joined by a solo bass line and eventually some guitar leads a bit reminiscent of the opening of Megadeth's "44 Minutes". Melodic guitar lines break into a similarly melodic riff, then a thrashier one with synth accompaniment. This leads into a moody verse with acoustic guitars and strings and a reprise of the melodic riff. Another verse, this time with surging vocals, blossoms into an alternately soaring and seething chorus. The thrashy riff rolls into another great melodic lead, then another taste of the chorus. This falls into a moodier vocal bridge where the singing gradually starts to seethe again, blowing up into another pot-banging interlude with a nice scream. A partial reprise of the bridge and a quick drum breakdown leads back into the chorus and some great soloing and a quick outro. Excellent stuff, 9/10.
  • Inferno Rising - A crunchy riff gets some synth accompaniment, then falls away to some distant but urgent clean guitar, which is soon overtaken by full distorted guitars, revealing a thrashy riff. This supports a strained but pretty good verse. This gives way to a more atmospheric pre-chorus with ringing clean guitar that gradually builds in intensity, then unexpectedly drops back into a slow, doomy chorus 1. Another round of verse through chorus 1, then we get a very gentle and memorable chorus 2. Crunchier guitars and a scream carry us into yet another great extended melodic lead with occasional cut-time pot-banging on the drums. The guitar just keeps on going, busting out a beautiful neoclassical solo and going through some more thrash rhythms before returning to the doomy chorus 1 and a heavier version of chorus 2, ending on a decaying variant of chorus 2. This is a really interesting song that combines a lot of disparate elements in unexpected ways. The verses and the doomy chorus 1 are merely good, but most of the rest of the song is excellent, and that neoclassical solo is brilliant. On balance let's say 8/10.
  • Seventh - A punchy, rolling riff trades off with a crunchier one, accompanied by synth choral notes. This breaks into a nice rolling verse and a less effective pot-banging pre-chorus, but then we get a huge, soaring chorus with thick harmonized guitars underneath. Another round of verse through chorus, then a rollicking, stomping interlude makes way for another extended melodic lead. More pot-banging underpins a quick solo, then a brief instrumental returns to a heartfelt variant chorus with sweet singing harmonized guitars, eventually fading away to end the track. The pre-chorus could be a little stronger, but the rest of the song is really great, so I would round this up to an 8/10.
  • My Redemption - A stompy intro breaks into a thrashy riff with some cut-time drumming, then gives way to a synthier hard rock groove. This unexpectedly falls back into a gentler version of the groove with busy clean guitar to support a melodic verse 1. The heavier groove returns for a coarser verse 2, then we get another gentler verse 1. This breaks into a thick, heavy, somewhat slower chorus. The thrashy riff carries us back into verse 1, then a quick heavy interlude cuts back into the chorus and a great guitar solo. A percussive half-spoken bridge follows, then some sweet harmonized guitar with vocal accents. A quick reprise of the bridge leads back into the chorus, then some more permutations of the guitar themes and some more pot-banging before ending on a decaying note with the sound of crackling flames. This is another track with a few parts that are merely good; but most of it is great, so I would also round this up to an 8/10.
  • Haunted Sea - Haunting clean ringing guitar is joined by bass and a synth choir, then some crunchier distorted guitars before breaking into a heavier interlude with cut-time drumming. A reprise of the opening theme cuts into a melodic riff, then a more rolling riff underneath a catchy verse. Some brief pot banging then breaks into a huge, fist-pumping chorus 1. A brief interlude, then we get another round of verse through that great chorus 1. This unexpectedly drops down into a much gentler version of chorus 1 with string accompaniment, which builds into a seething vocal and crunchy guitars that underpin a strong solo. A screamy vocal bridge leads into a rhythmic interlude that suddenly blossoms into a grander instrumental with "woah-ohs" and backing acoustic guitars. This flows into a heavier, soaring chorus 2 that becomes slightly less heavy and more heartfelt. More "woah-ohs", then we drop back into the gentle version of chorus 1, eventually slowing down into a big rock ending to finish the album. Excellent song, 9/10.
(The record also includes 3 more variants of "Saudade" as bonus tracks -- the electric version in Portuguese, and acoustic versions in both English and Portuguese -- but since these are so similar to the main electric/English version, and clearly aren't meant to be listened to as part of the album, I didn't include them here.)

Average: 8.2/10
Weighted: 8.3/10

This album captured my curiosity on the first listen because of its interesting mix of styles, but it took a few more spins to fully sink in. "50% Godsmack, 50% every other kind of metal" isn't an approach I would have really considered before hearing this, and that description isn't something I would have particularly expected to enjoy, either; but the proof is in the pudding, and the end result here is undeniably great.

Cut-time drumming isn't normally to my taste, and it shows up on this record more than I would like; but its appearances are pretty brief, and there's so much else to like here that it wasn't too hard for me to accept it in the end. And fans of black metal and melodeath might see its presence as a positive.

It's always heartening to hear a band come in with a unique style and actually stick the landing, especially on a debut album. In the end this became one of my very favorite records of 2022, and it's one I'll return to frequently.

(Master review index >)
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Ellefson-Soto - Vacation In The Underworld (2022)

Megadeth founding member and part-time internet exhibitionist David Ellefson teams up with Sons Of Apollo, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and former Yngwie vocalist Jeff Scott Soto for a heaping helping of metallic hard rock.

Despite the band moniker, Ellefson only has primary songwriting credit on 8 of the 14 tracks and secondary on a ninth, with guitar player Andy Martongelli having primary songwriting credit on most of the rest of the songs. However, Ellefson and/or Soto are credited with writing almost all of the lyrics.
  • Vacation In The Underworld - Synths greet a very Yngwie-esque guitar intro which soon moves into a driving, modern riff. The guitars temporarily fall away for a bass-driven verse with a catchy vocal from Soto. The guitars return to propel us through another verse and into a slightly slower and more distorted pre-chorus, then the driving modern riff returns to support a strong chorus. The lyrics here are a pretty direct shot at Dave Mustaine, though some of the beef might be flying in Yngwie's direction as well. Another round of verse through chorus, then we get a memorable vocal bridge with some sinister guitar leads. A bass dive takes us into a thrashy interlude which brackets a pretty good solo. A brief pause, then the chorus surges back before a short instrumental outro. Really strong but not quite great, I think I have to round this down to a 7/10.
  • Like A Bullet - A bouncy hard rock riff is joined by some wah-laden guitar leads. This flows into another bass-driven verse with a catchy vocal, then a good pre-chorus that builds up nicely into a solid chorus. The bouncy riff takes us through another round of verse through chorus, then an OK solo. This leads into a spoken word bridge that starts off pretty well, but gets a little ranty as it continues. This cuts back into the pre-chorus and chorus, then a variant chorus to finish things off. This song has some great parts and a handful of weaker ones, and the lyrics can be a bit dopey at times, so I think I need to round this down to a 7/10 as well.
  • Sharpen The Sword - A punchy metallic riff works its way into a more open verse with some ringing notes. The verse vocal is OK, but nothing special. This rolls into a slightly better pre-chorus with some group-shout backing vocals, then breaks into a chorus which is musically catchy but lyrically cringeworthy, and the lyrics are delivered in kind of a rote, bored manner. Another round of verse through chorus, then we get a pretty strong vocal bridge and an almost neoclassical guitar lead, followed by a strong solo before returning to the chorus. A reprise of the opening riff leads into a guitar noodling outro that gradually fades away. This one's a mixed bag that improves as it goes along, but I'll have to give it a 6/10 overall.
  • The Reason - A sparse drum intro breaks into a preview of the chorus riff before falling back into a more open bass- and synth-driven verse with a memorable vocal. A strong pre-chorus flows nicely into a pretty great chorus. Another round of verse through chorus, then we get a great uplifiting vocal bridge and a solid solo. This returns to the pre-chorus, then takes a short atmospheric breather with some spoken word accents before surging back into the chorus. The atmospheric bit then returns to close things out. Add this track to the long list of recent songs about political division in the U.S., but the lyrics actually come across as heartfelt, and the music is consistently pretty great. 8/10.
  • S.T.N. - A distorted modern rock riff fades in and breaks into a driving, punky groove. A punchy verse leads into a great pre-chorus that blooms into a huge, catchy chorus 1. A scream and some chunky guitar then cuts into a simple, driving chorus 2. Another round of verse through choruses, then we get a series of solid melodic leads and a quick solo before returning to the choruses and a reprise of the intro to finish the song. Simple but extremely effective, this song is an excellent shot of adrenalin. 9/10.
  • The Revolution - A power-metallish melodic groove with some distant vocals does a Maiden-esque descent into a solid melodic verse. The riffage changes up a bit for additional verses, then we get a nice rising pre-chorus...except it's apparently the chorus? Another round of verse through chorus, then we're treated to a pretty strong power-metallish solo with nice harmonies before rolling back into the chorus and reprising the opening groove as a closer. This song has some good ideas, but it feels a little half-baked, and the lyrics have some trite rhymes too. Let's say 6/10.
  • Celebrity Trash - An upbeat riff that seems to partially echo Hole's "Celebrity Skin" rolls into a laid back bass-driven verse. This picks up into a pretty good pre-chorus 1, a brief guitar breakdown, and a very quick pre-chorus 2 before blossoming into a giant, soaring chorus. Another round of verse through chorus, then we get an OK solo that transitions into a more interesting one, then folds back into the excellent chorus. Some vocal riffing over the intro riff eventually breaks down into an abrupt finish. This song is uneven, but it's got good bones, and the chorus is so tasty that I have to round it up to an 8/10.
  • Live To Die Another Day - A very Megadethy thrash riff leads into an unfocused verse and an OK chorus with some background "woah-ohs". Another verse, now with some distant and very Megadethy leads, flows back into the chorus. Another very Megadethy descending lead underpins an OK vocal bridge, then a scream kicks into a fiery multi-part solo, then a new vocal bridge that rolls back into the verse and chorus. A reprise of the opening riff leads into a quick instrumental outro. This track feels like a failed attempt to write a traditional Megadeth song, where the individual parts make sense but aren't really baked into a cohesive whole. While there are some good raw materials here, I have to round this one down to a 5/10.
  • The Day Before Tomorrow - Cymbals herald a solo bass line, which is soon joined by some singing guitars and synths. This breaks into a strong upbeat verse (with a melody reminiscent of Maiden's "Fates Warning") that morphs directly into a very brief chorus, then we get some nice harmonized guitar leads and an unexpected violin solo that actually works quite well. A female vocalist (apparently Giada "Jade" Etro from Frozen Crown) delivers the next verse and chorus, then we get a great melodic solo that flirts with neoclassicalism. Soto and Etro sing the next verse and chorus as a duet, and a variation of the intro closes out the song. This track busts out some very welcome surprises, and Soto and Etro sound really good together on the duet section. Great stuff, 8/10.
  • Hercules - A short, moody bass-driven instrumental. Good, but nothing particularly special. 7/10.
  • Rise To Win - Synthy percussion and a bass lead break into a Megadethy riff and a bass solo, which propels us into a driving verse with a catchy vocal, then a strong chorus with some mechanical rhythm work underneath that has a distinctly Mekong Delta feel to it. A quick breakdown, then we get another round of verse and chorus. A busy ascending riff buffets a solid vocal bridge, then another bass solo and a scream break into a flute and violin solo(?!) followed by a strong multi-part guitar solo that eventually returns to the chorus and a quick percussive outro. Aside from the head-scratching flute and violin break in the middle which feels pretty out of place, this is actually pretty great, and probably does enough to round it up to an 8/10.
  • Out Of The Blue - Piano and synth strings lead into a sappy but memorable set of verses, and a pleasant-enough chorus. A strong vocal bridge follows, leading back into the chorus, then an extended piano outro with some vocal riffing, ending on a long synth note. Soto's performance here is strong, and the melodies are nice, but the lyrics are both a bit cheesy and very uncomfortable in the wake of Ellefson's video chaturbation scandal. If the lyrics are intended for his wife, then they come off as really disingenuous and stomach-churning -- and if they're intended for his 19-year-old remote sex partner, then they're even more disturbing. All things considered, I think I have to round this one down to a 5/10.
  • Lone Star - A buzzy riff somewhat reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" winds its way into a swaggery mid-paced riff. A solid verse builds into a better pre-chorus 1 and 2, then opens up into a big, soaring chorus 1 and a sleazier chorus 2. Another round of verse through choruses, then we get some interesting harmonized soloing before returning to the choruses and a final instrumental breakdown. A good song with some great parts, 7/10.
  • Writing On The Wall - (No, it's not a cover of the Iron Maiden song.) A pensive 10-string bass intro flows into a nice melancholy verse and pre-chorus, then a big but brief chorus. A gentle melodic lead rolls back into another round of verse through chorus, then a nice melodic solo. A reprise of the bass intro supports another verse, then eventually flows into a quick bass outro. This is presumably a more pensive lament on Ellefson's second exit from Megadeth, which actually makes for a nice bookend with the title track. Great stuff, 8/10.
Average: 7.1/10
Weighted: 7.0/10

This album is kind of uneven, and occasionally has a bit of an identity crisis; but it's still solidly good overall, and nearly half the tracks are great or better. Honestly, it's a more enjoyable listen than I expected it to be, and I think it's a slightly better album than Megadeth's The Sick, The Dying...And The Dead!, which came out the same year.

Some of the songwriting feels a bit contrived, like "Live To Die Another Day" trying to ape the Megadeth sound, or "Sharpen The Sword" trying to serve up some Yngwie-era fantasy lyrics for Soto to sing; and the less said about the problematic "Out Of The Blue", the better. But Soto's voice consistently sounds great here, and there are lots of memorable melodies and some pretty cool riffs on offer -- and when it all comes together properly, the band sounds really strong.

If they record another album I think they should drop the intentional nods to Ellefson's and Soto's previous bands and be more willing to self-edit and trim the fat, because they have the potential to put out something really great.

(Master review index >)

Queensrÿche - Digital Noise Alliance (2022)

As the Todd LaTorre era of Queensrÿche moved on to its fourth album, some lineup changes were finalized -- touring drummer Casey Grillo formally replaced original drummer Scott Rockenfield, and former guitarist Mike Stone replaced the departing Parker Lundgren -- but the core sound remained, as did the overall quality of their songwriting.
  • In Extremis - Atmospheric synths break into an urgent melodic lead, then a driving verse. This develops into a more upbeat pre-chorus that blossoms into a big, catchy chorus. This flows quickly into a more pensive vocal bridge 1, then a measured interlude with some harmonized guitar leads that picks up the pace through a more upbeat vocal bridge 2. Another round of verse through chorus, then harmonized leads with some vocal riffing comprise the outro. A great track with some extra polish and a particularly compelling chorus, I think this does enough to round it up to a 9/10.
  • Chapters - A quick bass intro cuts into an upbeat harmonized guitar riff. This flows into another upbeat verse riff with more melancholy vocals. A short breather, then we break into a strong, memorable chorus. More harmonized guitars lead into another round of verse and chorus, then a pair of soaring guitar solos with some harmonized parts. We return to the chorus, then a long, decaying note takes us out. Great stuff, 8/10.
  • Lost In Sorrow - The previous track flows right into this one, cutting into an odd-rhythm call-and-response between the rhythm section and the guitar. These blend together with some harmonized guitar leads, then break into a driving, atmospheric verse. A brief harmonized interlude, another verse, then a strong ascending pre-chorus breaks into a soaring chorus with harmonized vocals. A tasty melodic lead flows into a great vocal bridge, then another round of verse through chorus. This morphs into a synth-and-guitar outro with more vocal riffing before a quick finish. Another really great track that I think does enough to round it up to a 9/10.
  • Sicdeth - Warbly guitar and busy drums develop into a straightforward riff, then break into something a bit more urgent for an energetic verse. A more melodic and harmonized pre-chorus builds into a bigger, more melodious chorus. The urgent riff returns, leading into a percussive interlude and a more sparse vocal bridge 1, then a nice harmonized lead section. A more atmospheric bass-driven section follows, supporting a nice vocal bridge 2 as the warbly guitars return. This flows back into the verse, revealing that this is the album's stealth title track, then breaks directly into the chorus. A whispered variant bridge 1 serves as the outro. Perhaps not quite on the same level as the previous two tracks, this is still a great song overall. 8/10.
  • Behind The Walls - Strained chorus emerge from the detritus of the previous track, building into a crunchy synth-supported groove. This breaks into a busier ascending bit that leads into a strong verse, then a more urgent harmonized pre-chorus and a sparse but memorable chorus. Another round of verse through chorus, then we get a nice ascending vocal bridge that leads into a sweet multi-part solo and a reprise of the synth-supported groove. Another round of pre-chorus and chorus, then we get a great extended instrumental with harmonized leads, and a partial reprise of the intro to close things out. Another great track with some excellent parts, 8/10.
  • Nocturnal Light - Some sparse and alien-sounding riffage with atmospheric synths and vocal accents breaks into a mid-tempo groove with some sweet bass fills to support a creepy verse and a strong pre-chorus 1 with some odd-rhythm vocals. A less urgent pre-chorus 2 builds into an interesting, moderately catchy chorus. A brief interlude returns to another round of verse through chorus, then an atmospheric break that welcomes some melancholy harmonized guitar leads. Drums enter and slowly build up into a brief melodic interlude. A reprise of the intro flows back into pre-chorus 2 and the chorus before another reprise of the intro ends the song. A very cool track that improves as it goes along, I think I should round this up to 8/10.
  • Out Of The Black - An urgent riff supports some nice melodic leads, soon giving way to a melodic, atmospheric verse. Another riff interlude and verse, then an ascending pre-chorus breaks into a more open harmonized chorus 1 and a more rhythmically challenging chorus 2. Some nice back-to-back solos merge into a harmonized lead, then return to another round of pre-chorus and chorus 1, before more harmonized leads take us to a decaying note that closes out the track. Good stuff, 7/10.
  • Forest - A mid-paced drum rhythm is joined by synths and 12-string guitar, breaking into a melodious electric lead and a gentle verse. This flows into an airy, pleasant pre-chorus and an OK chorus. Another melodic lead takes us into another round of verse through chorus. LaTorre's pronunciation of "misery" as "mis-o-ree" is a bit grating here. A pleasant-enough melodic lead heralds a brief vocal bridge that rolls back into the chorus and a synth-and-guitar outro. Airy and ephemeral, not a lot of meat here, but it's fine. 6/10.
  • Realms - Some odd-rhythm harmonized guitars with percussive accents lead into a more percussive interlude and an atmospheric verse that recalls some of the sounds of Promised Land. The rhythm pulls together into a more coherent pre-chorus before blooming into a soaring chorus. Some brief harmonized guitars roll into another round of verse through chorus, then a longer harmonized interlude, and a solid vocal bridge that flows right back into the chorus. Some guitar play flows into atmospheric synths to finish the song. Cool stuff, but not quite on the same level as many of the earlier tracks. 7/10.
  • Hold On - Busy percussion and some improvisational leads break into an odd-rhythm groove with some cool high bass notes. This flows into a more open, ringing verse and an upbeat pre-chorus and chorus. A nice melodic lead circles back to another round of verse through chorus. A more urgent vocal bridge carries us into an extended multi-part melodic guitar outro with some cool odd-rhythm parts. Good stuff, 7/10.
  • Tormentum - Ominous synths welcome a sinister harmonized riff. More energetic drums bring in a driving riff to propel a vocal and guitar call-and-response verse. This leads into an interesting descending pre-chorus and a soaring call-and-response chorus with some swelling group vocals. Another round of verse through chorus, then we get a creepy, atmospheric interlude with some spoken-word voiceover about torture. This picks up into a more energetic instrumental with some synth bells, developing into an extended guitar solo with some harmonized bits. A dissonant breakdown leads into a more measured interlude with some synth choir, then breaks into an odd-rhythm harmonized guitar lead and a strong vocal bridge. Another harmonized lead section eventually gives way to an atmospheric outro. Lots of interesting and memorable things going on here -- I think it merits a round-up to 8/10.
  • Rebel Yell - Harmonized ascending guitars are joined by synths for a pretty faithful rendition of this Billy Idol track. LaTorre does a respectable nod to Idol's voice here without losing his own identity. The solo section and the bridge split the difference between the original and the harmonized Queensrÿche sound, which is pretty cool. A great version of a great song, 8/10.
Average: 7.8/10
Weighted: 7.8/10

Another great album from the current incarnation of the band, albeit one that loses a little bit of steam on the back end, especially during the ballad "Forest".

While this version of the band fully found its voice on the previous album The Verdict, the new album allows some of the sounds of Empire and Promised Land to creep back in to great effect; and aside from "Forest" the quality of the album is consistently very high. Hopefully the rumors will come true and these guys will be opening for Iron Maiden on the U.S. leg of the Future Past tour, but we'll have to see. In the meantime I'll try to stop kicking myself for not seeing them on the Verdict tour when they passed nearby...

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A-Z - A-Z (2022)

Former Fates Warning and Warlord drummer Mark Zonder drafted Fates Warning singer Ray Alder for a strong set of proggy hard rock whose sound lands somewhere between mid-80s Rush and Journey.
  • Trial By Fire - Distant guitar is joined by an ascending riff and busy percussion to drive a great verse. This breaks into a big anthemic chorus, then cuts right back into another round of verse and chorus. A great vocal bridge follows, then a simplified version of the verse riff underpins a sweet extended solo that gets more and more fiery as it goes. A variant bass-forward bridge takes us back to the chorus before a reprise of the intro with chorus vocal riffing serves as an outro. Excellent stuff -- every part of it is memorable. 9/10.
  • The Far Side Of The Horizon - Sound effects and percussion gain a sinister, crunchy riff, then some unexpected piano accompaniment. This opens up into a sparse, atmospheric verse with strong melodic vocals and busy drumming, then breaks into a big, soaring chorus. A brief guitar lead rolls back into another round of verse and chorus, then we get a gentle interlude of "oohs" and "ahhs" with a spicy synth lead. A peppier bass and guitar section leads into a variant verse and more urgent bridge 1, then falls back into a gentle bridge 2 with piano accompaniment before returning to the chorus. A synth & guitar slowly fades away to end the track. Great song, 8/10.
  • The Machine Gunner - A rapid-fire drum intro breaks into an urgent tapped groove. This breaks into a strong verse and a great chorus 1, then a slightly less intense chorus 2. A melodic vocal bridge with an almost power-metallish flavor to it follows, then a reprise of the tapped groove with some rhythmic change-ups leads into an almost Yngwie-esque synth and guitar tradeoff solo. This flows into a variant verse and chorus 1, then a fiery guitar solo before returning to the tapped groove and chorus 1, and an extended guitar solo that eventually fades away. There's some awkward vocal phrasing in this one, but so much of the track is great that I have to round it up to an 8/10.
  • Rise Again - Electronic percussion and crashing waves are joined by piano and a soft verse vocal. Electric guitars eventually join in, then a gentle interlude of "ahhs" flows into a pretty strong pre-chorus. More "ahhs" and another pre-chorus, then we get a surprisingly catchy and uplifting chorus. A brief interlude, now with both "oohs" and "ahhs", rolls back into another round of pre-chorus and chorus. A piano-driven instrumental eventually gives way to the "oohs" again, and we fade out on crashing waves. This song started off a little shaky, but it really pulls itself together by the time the chorus arrives, so I think I need to round it up to a 7/10.
  • Window Panes - A peppy riff with equally peppy percussion gives way to an atmospheric verse. An urgent pre-chorus follows, falling back into a more melodic, atmospheric chorus. A reprise of the intro with some brief soloing rolls into another round of verse through chorus. A crunchy vocal bridge 1 with some odd synths blossoms into a more soaring bridge 2, then a brief atmospheric bridge 3. A nice instrumental eventually works its way back around to the pre-chorus, then a variant chorus, and a quick breakdown of an outro. On the fence with this one, but I think the unusual structure and the strength of the instrumentation merits a round-up to an 8/10.
  • Run Away - A lively percussive intro breaks into a driving synth groove with a sweet guitar lead. This flows into a solid verse and a less interesting pre-chorus with continued guitar accents. This breaks into a catchier but still merely solid chorus, then an atmospheric instrumental before returning to the chorus. Busy percussion underpins an otherwise gentle vocal bridge 1, which gains urgency as it becomes bridge 2. An unexpectedly intense guitar solo follows, then another atmospheric interlude that returns to the chorus and a quick outro. This song has an interesting structure and some nice parts, but it feels kind of half-baked in the end. 6/10.
  • Stranded - A bass, clean guitar, and synth intro flows into an airy verse. Electric guitars join in for a more urgent and soaring chorus. A synthy interlude rolls back into another round of verse and chorus, then a slightly more subdued vocal bridge. This breaks into a strong melodic solo, then returns to the chorus before morphing into a harder-rocking outro groove with some chorus vocal riffing that slowly fades away. The chorus is great and the rest is pretty good, but I think this one gets the round-down to 7/10.
  • At The Waters Edge - A raspy synth groove is joined by electronic percussion and a bouncy guitar lead. This breaks into an OK verse and a subdued but similarly OK chorus. Another round of verse and chorus, then a brief guitar interlude flows into a multi-part vocal bridge that kicks up the intensity as it goes. A strong guitar solo leads into a variant chorus that turns into an outro groove with chorus vocal riffing as it fades out. OK with some cool parts, 6/10.
  • Borrowed Time - Sound effects and electronic percussion break into a guitar and vocal call-and-response verse and a very brief scream of a pre-chorus with some sinister crunchy riffage. Another round of verse and pre-chorus, then we get an unexpectedly catchy and uplifting chorus. An almost industrial interlude flows into a cool, mechanically melodic vocal bridge that loops back around to the chorus. A fiery guitar solo follows, then we get another round of verse through chorus before a quick industrial outro. Really great stuff with a badass pre-chorus, I think this merits a round-up to a 9/10.
  • Sometimes - An urgent drum groove and some guitar harmonics lead into a solid, airy verse 1 and an OK pre-chorus. Another verse, then a much more urgent riff enters and drives verse 2 before falling back into a not-very-inspiring chorus. A nice melodic solo leads back to the chorus, then some extended vocal riffing over the opening groove closes out the song. This is another one with some nice parts that doesn't feel fully fleshed out. 6/10.
  • The Silence Broken - A percussive intro is joined by a pleasantly busy guitar riff to drive a melodic verse. This kicks into a more urgent pre-chorus and a brief chorus. A reprise of the busy guitar riff flows back into another round of verse through chorus with some extra vocal riffing. A bluesy, distant guitar solo follows, eventually developing into a busier solo before returning to the pre-chorus and chorus with more vocal riffing through a final fade-out. Great song, 8/10.
Average: 7.5/10
Weighted: 7.5/10

This is a generally great album that starts to have some consistency issues in its second half. Each of the individual musicians sounds great, with Zonder giving off some serious Neil Peart vibes, Alder consistently delivering a rich, full tone, and the guitar, bass, and synths all getting a chance to stretch their muscles too. Some of the vocal phrasing is a bit odd, and not all of the vocal melodies are winners, but most of the album is great or better.

You don't hear this sort of crisp, busy, synthy kind of hard rock very often anymore -- it had a very specific moment in the mid-80s that never really came around again. But if you have an emotional connection to that sort of music like I do, this may be right up your alley.

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Former Fates Warning and Warlord drummer Mark Zonder drafted Fates Warning singer Ray Alder for a strong set of proggy hard rock whose sound lands somewhere between mid-80s Rush and Journey.

I’m a huge Warlord and Zonder fan, but missed this release entirely thanks, I’ll give it a few spins.

Ball Noir - Cabinet Of Curiosities (2022)

Six years after their great album Lost Serenades, this Dutch folk metal band returned with an aptly named 81-minute hodgepodge of new studio tracks, covers, acoustic and live versions of songs from Lost Serenades, remastered versions of instrumentals from their original demo recordings, and a few dance remixes(!). There's only about 30 minutes of totally new studio material here, and the rest is effectively bonus tracks, so I choose to refer to this as a maxi-EP (once again, with apologies to @Cornfed Hick).
  • SOS (bourree) - A fluttering ambient tone is joined by pensive harp, then the full band, as they settle into a slow, swaying groove. This eventually leans back into a more atmospheric verse that builds through a strong pre-chorus into a short but great bellow of a chorus. The heavier feel of the chorus carries through an interlude before looping into another round of verse and pre-chorus and a great multi-part guitar solo. A gentler harp and string interlude is joined by hurdy-gurdy before breaking back into the main groove and a variant chorus that ends on a long decaying tone. Great stuff, 8/10.
  • Trail - Plaintive clean guitar gains synth and electric guitar accompaniment before breaking into a memorable melodic lead with electronic percussion. This eventually gives way to a harp interlude that flows into a melancholy verse and a more energetic chorus 1. Another round of verse and chorus 1, then a more bombastic take on the melodic lead section carries on for a while before opening up into a great call-and-response chorus 2. A quick reprise of the melodic lead serves as an outro. Much of this is excellent, though it feels like it could and should have kicked into a higher gear on a couple of occasions, so I'm going to round it down to a still great 8/10.
  • Space - A cover of a song by the band Orfeo, who shares two members with Ball Noir. Descending acoustic and electric guitars support an interesting harmonized vocal intro, moving into a more traditional verse with constant melodic lead and harp accompaniment. The verses steadily increase in heaviness before reaching an ill-considered half-extreme cackle. An interlude with soloing electric guitar and very prominent acoustic guitar cuts into a heavier chorus with hurdy-gurdy and a vaguely middle eastern feel. This leads into a less intense instrumental section, then a variant chorus with a folkier feel and a quick finish. I'm not familiar with the original version, but this one has lots of great, cool parts, and it flows really well. 8/10.
  • Morningrise - Another cover of an Orfeo song. Jangly acoustic guitar and atmospheric synths suddenly break into a hurdy-gurdy-driven interlude, then a multi-part electric guitar and hurdy-gurdy duet with some repeated themes. This gradually evolves into a more driving groove, then reprises the intro and first interlude before a quick, aggressive denouement. This is a very good instrumental overall, though some of the duet sections don't mesh together quite as well as they could. Let's say 7/10.
  • Drifting (acoustic) - An acoustic studio version of a song from Lost Serenades. The gentle verses work well, though the chorus loses some of its power in this version, and the vocals feel a little overwrought at times. The harp interludes are nice, though. Still pretty good, but inferior to the original. 6/10.
  • The Veil (acoustic) - Another acoustic studio version of a song from Lost Serenades. The harp fills in surprisingly well for the hurdy-gurdy and guitars here, and the vocal performance is mostly great. The structure of the song is reworked here, trimming some of the intro and bringing forward the spoken word bridge so it lands between the initial verse and chorus. This isn't quite as good as the original, but it's a worthy alternate version. 7/10.
  • Cage Of Eden (acoustic) - Yet another acoustic studio version of a song from Lost Serenades. Piercing harp notes are an interesting replacement for the more textured electric guitars of the original, but not fully effective. The addition of cello and flute is very nice though, and gives this version a more pensive and melancholy feel. Most of the vocals work well, though the chorus definitely loses some steam here. Again, not quite as good as the original, but I think it deserves a round-up to 7/10.
  • Never Again (live) - A live rendition of a song from Lost Serenades, recorded at TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, Netherlands. The instruments and vocals sound great, and are very faithful to the studio version. Gotta love the bass clarinet solo in the middle, and the melodic guitar solo toward the end is really well executed. Great stuff, 8/10.
  • Scottish Of Death (remastered) - This instrumental from their original MySpace demos was eventually reworked into "Ceasars Descent" [sic] on their debut album Bitter Dreams from 2012. The throbbing synth tones are intact, as are the interesting harmonies in the hurdy-gurdy and violin duet section, though the recording quality is a bit worse, as expected. Still a very good song in this form, 7/10.
  • Mazurka Of Death (remastered) - This one was reworked into "Dead Wood Song" on Bitter Dreams. Mostly variations on a single theme with different instruments taking the lead throughout, this one's pretty good, but not particularly special. 6/10.
  • Rondeau En Couple Of Death (remastered) - This one was reworked into "Dancing Flame" on Bitter Dreams. It alternates between a couple of different themes with some broader variations than "Mazurka Of Death", and I think it's more memorable in general, so I would round it up to a 7/10.
  • Enjoy The Silence - A cover of the Depeche Mode classic. Harp takes the place of the lead synths in the original, and buzzy guitar fills in the low end, while the hurdy-gurdy takes the lead during the first interlude. The vocals are pretty faithful to the original, minus some extra whispers and one unfortunate growl later on. A cool guitar solo is added onto the end, too. Not as awesome as the original, but great nevertheless. 8/10.
  • Winter Is Coming - Yes, this is a cover of the Game Of Thrones theme song, which is apparently a compulsory act for every folk metal band out there today. This rendition is a little peppier and more aggressive than the original (well, obviously, since it's driven by electric guitar), but it's otherwise pretty faithful. They expand the song past the short scope of the original, adding a nice extended harp interlude between the two main rounds of the theme. Setting aside the eye-rolling nature of yet another folk metal band covering this song, this is actually a really great version of it, which I think I need to round up to a 9/10.
  • The Other (dance remix) - A dance remix of the leadoff single from Lost Serenades. Ambient noise greets some electronic beats, settling into a groove reminiscent of something from Depeche Mode's Violator. The sinister feel works really well with the verse. The song gradually falls away to a single pulsing synth tone, then returns to the main groove for another verse before an extended instrumental outro. While this version has a cool feel, the loss of the melodic leads that stood in for a chorus in the original version definitely leaves this one feeling a bit flatter. Let's say 7/10.
  • Trail (dance remix) - A dance remix of one of the new songs from this release. Atmospheric percussion with some synth tones slowly builds, eventually being joined by piano and electric guitar. This breaks into a crunchy guitar & electronic percussion groove before the main melodic lead of the song takes over. This works its way through the harp interlude with constant pulsing percussion, and then into the verse. The vocals here sound like the original recording was artificially sped up, which isn't great. The song cuts more quickly than the original into chorus 2, then slowly fades out. Definitely inferior to the original, but it still holds onto enough of its appealing parts to eke out a 6/10.
  • Love And Resonance Symphony (dance remix) - A dance remix of an instrumental from Bitter Dreams. A bouncy synth lead and dancey rhythm gets a little hurdy-gurdy flavor and a major key makeover, keeping only the most tenuous connection to the original version. The song doesn't really go anywhere meaningful over its runtime, but there isn't anything bad about it, so I guess that lands it at a 5/10.
Average: 7.1/10
Weighted: 7.2/10

This digital-only release is a bit of an odd duck. The 6 brand new tracks (2 originals and 4 covers) are almost all great, while the rest of the material is mostly good, but more uneven. It also doesn't flow as well as an actual album would, since there are discrete sections with different types of songs throughout.

So, while this wouldn't be a good starting point for someone new to the band, there's a lot of worthwhile material here for someone who's already a fan, and the two new original tracks are great. Hopefully the wait for their next full-length album won't be anywhere near as long as the wait for this maxi-EP was.

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Smith/Kotzen - Better Days ...And Nights (2022)

About a year after the release of the Better Days EP, which originally only got digital and vinyl releases for Record Store Day, the 4 studio tracks from that EP were repackaged with 5 new live tracks from the 2022 Smith/Kotzen tour and finally got a physical CD release.

Since the first four tracks are literally just the Better Days EP all over again, I'll only note their scores here, and if you want more detail you can look at my original review of the Better Days EP.
  • Better Days - 8/10.
  • Got A Hold On Me - 7/10.
  • Hate And Love - 8/10.
  • Rise Again - 6/10.
  • Hate And Love (live) - This is a pretty faithful rendition of the studio track, with a few extra guitar embellishments. The vocal deliveries from both Smith and Kotzen are good, but slightly weaker than in the studio. The solos are great, though. Not quite as good as the original, but close enough to round this up to an 8/10.
  • Got A Hold On Me (live) - "Alright, this next one's about the perils of alcohol -- but enjoy your beer, y'know what I mean?" Another pretty solid live version with a few weaker moments in the vocals, though Adrian's solos actually pop a little more in the live setting. Again, not quite as good as the original, but close enough to round this up to a 7/10.
  • Scars (live) - Kotzen's voice actually sounds better here than on the studio recording, and the extra reverb from the live setting gives some of the guitar parts a more organic feel. The melodic lead break in the middle of the chorus is altered a bit and gets a little lost in the mix, but overall I think I like this version a little bit more than the original, probably enough to round it up to an 8/10.
  • You Don't Know Me (live) - Kotzen's voice sounds better here than on the parts of the studio recording where he resembled a cat being strangled, though a fair amount of the vocal delivery from both Smith and Kotzen in other places is a bit weaker. The extended jammy instrumental that fills the second half of the song is great, though, including a new harmonized lead section. I was tempted to round this one down, but I think the back half of the track made up for the shortfalls of the front, so we'll give it an 8/10.
  • Running (live) - Kotzen's voice sounds a little busted about half the time on this one, and the overall performance doesn't jell as well as some of the others. The instrumental parts sound great, though. Let's say 7/10 overall.
Average: 7.4/10
Weighted: 7.6/10

If you don't already have the Better Days EP, then it's a no-brainer to choose this version of the package instead. None of the new live tracks blew me away, but they're of pretty similar quality to the originals overall, with "Scars" being even a little bit better.

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George Lynch & Jeff Pilson - Heavy Hitters (2020)

The former Dokken guitarist and bassist teamed up once again in 2020 to deliver an unusual album featuring hard rock covers of pop, alternative, and R&B songs from the past few decades.
  • One Of Us - A cover of the Joan Osbourne song from 1995. This version has a much darker, downbeat feel to a lot of it, though the pre-choruses are still upbeat and the chorus falls somewhere in the middle. Wil Martin's thinner male vocals work pretty well here, and when the heavy guitars kick in for the second verse you know you're getting something very different. Some nice shredding at the end of the chorus, then a cool extended melodic solo from Lynch leads back into an extra-gentle vocal bridge before a final chorus and outro. Very good with some great bits, probably does enough to eke out an 8/10.
  • You Got The Love - A cover of Rufus and Chaka Khan's song from 1974. Some very fat and funky bass sounds here. Marq Torien's soulful vocals are a great fit and give this version a lot more oomph than the original. Some sweet funky guitar work here too, and some nice harmonized bits under the bridge. A little repetitive, but clearly superior to the original, a very solid 7/10.
  • I Feel The Earth Move - A cover of the Carole King song from 1971. This one busts out of the gate with heavy riffage and has more pep than the original. Wil Martin sounds fine here. There's a pretty cool extended mellotron and guitar instrumental with an improvisational feel in the middle, and a nice big rock ending. Pretty good overall, I think I'd round it up to a 7/10.
  • Ordinary World - A cover of Duran Duran's comeback song from 1992. This is a pretty straight cover with a little more emphasis on the guitars, and Wil Martin's voice fits well. Good stuff, 7/10.
  • Music - A cover of Madonna's song from 2000. Much ballsier, replacing the electronic beats with a heavy guitar groove instead, but keeping a lot of the near & far techno effects. Pilson gets a couple of nice bass leads, too. Wil Martin's vocals are fuller than Madonna's, but still sound a little on the thin side here. Not a fan of the original song, and this version is clearly better, but it's still a bit repetitive. Probably merits a round-up to 7/10, though.
  • Apologize - A cover of OneRepublic's song from 2007. Lynch's ringing arpeggios give this some extra character, and Wil Martin's voice is a great fit here. Unfortunately, when the heavy guitars come in it doesn't quite work as well, and there's a slightly funky instrumental bit that feels kinda off before Lynch breaks into a great, epic solo. This is pretty good, but a bit of a mixed bag, so let's say 6/10.
  • Nowhere To Run - A cover of Martha And The Vandellas' song from 1965. This is a very guitar- and bass-forward version of the song. Wil Martin again sounds fine here, but not remarkable. Lynch delivers a great solo, then the bridge has some weird drum-n-bass effects that are a bit of a head scratcher. Pretty good, but kind of repetitive and has some weaknesses, so let's say another 6/10.
  • Kiss - A cover of Prince's song from 1986. The original is really sparse, with very high and frail vocals, but this version goes for a heavy guitar groove and a breathy performance from Wil Martin that works a lot better for me. Lynch delivers a very cool, funky multi-layered solo in the middle and a sweet extended wah-laden instrumental for an outro. Good stuff, 7/10.
  • It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) - A cover of R.E.M.'s song from 1987. Very crunchy with a Lynchy groove underneath the stream-of-consciousness verses. Jeff Pilson delivers the vocals here, and he sounds decent. The chorus is more stately than the original until the end of the song, where it falls back into the classic punkier feel. Lynch's final solo feels a bit out of place, though it's technically impressive. This is a fun but inferior version of the song that I probably need to round down to a 6/10.
  • Champagne Supernova - A cover of Oasis's song from 1996. Lynch gives this a slightly bluesier spin, and Wil Martin's vocals fit the song pretty well, even keeping a hint of the original's British accent. This is another pretty straight cover, though Lynch lets loose during the extended solo section at the end. Not on the same level as the original, but good enough. 7/10.
  • Lucille - A cover of Little Richard's song from 1957. This has ambient crowd noise as if it were live, but I'm pretty sure it's not. This is another pretty straight cover with much heavier guitar, and Wil Martin's vocals sound pretty good on it. Not a lot of musical meat here, but it's good for what it is, so I'll round it up to a 7/10.
Average: 6.8/10
Weighted: 6.9/10

While I'd rather hear new original material from this duo, this was an interesting detour that had a number of cool tracks on it. A few of the songs fall slightly short, but most of the album is solidly good, and offers some unusual takes on some very familiar tunes, sometimes surpassing the originals.

Apparently this did well enough for them that they're planning to release a second volume, Heavy Hitters II, in August 2023.

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