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Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Reviews: Foo Fighters, Transatlantic, Todd La Torre, Sins Of Magnus (Reviews By Alex Swift & Matt Bladen)

Foo Fighters: Medicine At Midnight (RCA/Roswell Records) [Alex Swift]

At this point, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters – regardless of your opinion on their ‘song-oriented’ take on hard rock, are an institution within their genre. For my money, I’ve always found them likable enough to defy some of the harsher criticisms that get doled out to them – everyone rightly seems to agree that The Colour And The Shape is a classic, and you are likely to get begrudging nods of agreement when you point out that 2011’s Wasting Light was frankly far more memorable than anyone was expecting. 

Although for all the indifference that other records of theirs are met with I often find myself in a position of defending them: In Your Honour and Echoes, Silence, Patience, And Grace are two personal favourites of mine, and I can even appreciate works like Sonic Highways as well as Concrete And Gold for expanding on their sound in a way which honoured their place as an ‘arena rock’ act while refusing to become creatively stagnant. And one fact I think everyone can agree on is that Grohl doesn’t seem like he wants to make music for cynical reasons. That’s why they are still such a great live act – they believe every word they're saying and haven’t lost that zealous passion for making music, even after 25 years. That said, I do understand the criticisms that get levelled their way. For all their focus on albums from a promotional point of view, they are very much a singles act: One By One, The Pretender, Run, all pieces which casual listeners may point to as favourites. And while they try and make changes with each release to stop them from becoming homogenous they do have a ‘sound’ that has served them well throughout the years and shows no sign of being changed.

All these factors are present across Medicine At Midnight. Put simply, this is meant to be the Foo’s ‘dance rock’ album. That feat is noticeable across maybe half of the songs here, and again this is still very definitely these musicians. Like the more theatrical experimentation on the last couple of records the vibe has changed but the approach to songwriting and musicianship has stayed very much the same. Not to say that the record is bad. Opener Making A Fire beguiles with exuberant melodies and an overall sense of triumph, the choir vocals and classic rock strut make this a joyously fun anthem to start us off on. The appropriately titled, Shame Shame brings down the mood significantly. This was also the first single and like many, I’ve got no idea why. With its lethargically slow beat you can’t dance to the track, nor does the lack of distinctive chorus make for great excitement. 

Worst of all, I think this piece could have worked – the strings are enchanting, and the percussion provides an interesting rhythmic approach. Had the piece developed over a few minutes, using that groundwork of tension and sadness, I think we could have had a genuinely emotional anthem. However, there is no attempt to engage dramatically, meaning that not until Cloudspotter, which follows, do we get a true moment of catharsis, worth returning to. If all Foo Fighters records do indeed include flashes of greatness, this is one for this record – the verses are rhythmically textured in a way that proves energetic while living up to the dance influences eloquently before the spirited chorus provides that moment of liberation that was missing through the previous song. Look out for this one live.

Waiting On A War is the album's emotional centre-point. The acoustic guitar sees us in on a sanguine note, while the development lends brilliantly to the feeling of mounting fear at the political landscape of the world around us. The tone of the track is one of contemplation, with the ardent refrains of ‘there’s got to be more to this than that’ speak to the passion at the heart of the inspired instrumentation and rising and falling crescendos. Equally the title track is likeable with the funk undertones, and sense of enveloping darkness, which makes for a danceable yet thoughtful staple in the tracklist – although elements like the looped drum patterns might catch the listener off guard at first, this is one of the most unique pieces here and is all the better for that. 

No Son Of Mine was written in tribute to Lemmy and is the most distinctly ‘loud’ track here, as exemplified by the seething nature of the verses, and the frenzied chorus which packs the energy of a firecracker while remaining outstanding! Songs like this and the following Holding Poison which takes us back to more familiar territory, suffer from the production – these musicians have rarely been able to fully capture the feel of their live performances on record, and these are no exception to that rule! We end on Chasing Birds and Love Dies Young. The former falls low on the list of acoustic Foo’s songs that I would think about returning to – very pretty, don’t get me wrong, but not quite up to the level of Friend Of A Friend or even Stranger Things Have Happened. That said, the closer is an inspiring one with some fantastic instrumental work and melodies which I found myself singing along to after a few listens.

Overall this is a piece that will likely confirm any preconceptions you had about Foo Fighters. Do you love them? If yes, then you’ll probably relish the listening experience. Do you, like me, really like them, while acknowledging their flaws? In that case, you’ll probably see this as patchy yet solid. While they are an act that most people agree are likeable, if you have never got into them, then Medicine At Midnight is unlikely to change your opinion. They’ll see that as another success. 7/10

Transatlantic – The Absolute Universe (InsideOut Records) [Alex Swift]

Brevity rarely enters the progressive rock dialect. As a genre focusing on majestic compositions that unfurl and play out with the stylistic formula of classical music, being quick and to the point sort of defeats the objective. Indeed, few people are more synonymous with contemporary prog than the four gentlemen in this supergroup – Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater), Pete Trewavas (Marillion), and Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard). On their new album, Transatlantic has taken the ambition principle to heights that are either committed or self-indulgent, with an ambitious album in two different versions; A 90 minute ‘extended’ version called Forevermore, and an ‘abridged’ version spanning an hour called The Breath Of Life. Here’s the twist. While they essentially contain many of the same songs, they are not the same album with different lengths. Oh no, that would be far too simple. See, the thing you need to know about the decision to release the ‘experience’ in this somewhat confusing format is that the idea arose from a band dispute. 

First came the original hour and a half piece. Morse suggested pairing this length back slightly to which the other members vehemently disagreed. So, a compromise was reached. They would make a shorter cut of The Absolute Universe and Morse would have the freedom to change some of the instrumental passages, lyrics, and production elements to his vision. The idea was given label backing on the precondition that both versions be packaged in a third ‘ultimate’ edition, available for purchase. Putting both together, this amounts to an insane 150 minutes of music, a lot of which is the same in composition, except containing enough differences to give the most devoted of prog fanatics an auditory maze to explore. I think it’s excessive, but I still think this is a brilliant work, and…much as I might be one of the few prog fans that appreciate a degree of conciseness…I recommend Forevermore as the superior release.

I’m not going to pour over all of the differences here. I think there are failings and successes to both of the experiences on offer, which is why I think it’s a shame that once both were finished, the band didn’t decide to fashion a single great record themselves, instead of choosing to be overly prolific and expecting the listener to put the pieces together for themselves. Issues with the release aside though, the key difference, and the reason I prefer Forevermore over The Breath Of Life, is that while the latter seems preoccupied with bringing out the songwriting above all else, the former is about the unified involvement: the songs working in tandem with the soaring instrumentals, the technical yet deeply affective musicianship and the theatrical transitions which allow the piece to come together. Take the dramatic Overture and the instantly optimistic Heart Like A Whirlwind. These are similar across both versions, yet it’s the immersive production, tension setting rhythmic accentuations, and swell across several minutes that enable these to truly make a statement about the nature of the ‘extended’ disc. 

Pairing them back, and applying different compositional logic in the way that ‘abridged’ does, upsets the sense of balance and cohesion, which is another vital element utilised by its counterpart. There are also some very strange decisions made about the track-listing. Among them, the absolute nonsensical decision to cut the majestic double epics of The World We Used To Know, and The Sun Comes Up Today from the shorter version while keeping the pointless interludes and moments like the self-indulgent yet mercifully brief Belong. Indeed, for evidence of how the chopping and changing of the original product disrupt the flow, look to the brilliant way Swing High, Swing Low transitions into Bully on one, vs. the lopsided transition seen on the other, left by the unforgivable emission of the later mentioned number. Few of the musical changes contribute anything overtly unique or stunning.

Before we get to some of the elements I do prefer about the abridged version, let’s talk about lyrics. Mostly, the focus is one of inspiration and encouragement for us to see ourselves as one species, not as warring factions. It’s a positive message which most can relate to…but - and here’s another reason I prefer Forevermore – in case you hadn’t guessed, The Breath Of Life contains several Morse-ism’s. Look, there’s no disrespect to any faiths meant when I say that Neil is a divisive guy, and just as I prefer him when he is working with others on a musical basis, I also prefer when someone else is writing lyrics for him. From a strictly personal perspective, the born again Christian messaging takes me out of the headspace for enjoying this version, and lines like ‘take now my soul’ just make me want to retreat to the safety of the originally intended release, where subtlety and personal interpretation play a huge part. That said, the cutting down of certain songs like the impressive albeit overly long Owl Howl is greatly appreciated. So is the decision to change Solitude into a darker, more ethereal piece, on the amended cut. More than that, wearing my non-cynical hat for a second, I guess I admire the commitment to giving fans a meaningful choice between which albums to listen to, even if I do think it’s disproportionate.

Rating The Absolute Universe is difficult as, as I said, there is a perfect album, somewhere within the combination of these discs. Forevermore on its own is close to perfect, and even The Breath Of Life earns a decent score. However, looking at the piece as a whole means I must take into account its brilliance as a creation, yet its flaws as a complete piece. This is still one of my favourite albums of the year so far (well, the longer one). I just hope that Transatlantic can better combine their competing visions in the future. 8/10

Todd La Torre - Rejoice In Suffering (Rat Pak Records) [Matt Bladen]

Ah Todd La Torre, the man who has been behind the mic of American Prog Metal stalwarts Queensrÿche since 2012. Well as global touring halted in 2020, it meant that he had a lot more free time. This has led to him not only contributing drums to the recent Jason Bieler record  reviewed but also completing his debut solo record. On Rejoice In Suffering La Torre plays the drums, (h was a drummer before he was a singer) and obviously uses those stratospheric pipes to full effect. I'd say actually to greater effect than he does with Queensrÿche. There he is trying to stick close to the Geoff Tate style meaning here he can let loose a little more, putting his vocals somewhere between King Diamond, Rob Halford, Warrel Dane and Mark Tornillo. 

The music too moves away from Queensrÿche, with a focus on much more classic heavy metal sound, evoking memories of famous meaty solos projects Halford and Beyond Fear. La Torre is joined by longtime collaborator Craig Blackwell (guitars, bass, keyboards) who also co-produces while Zeuss handles mixing and mastering for the huge sound on this record. So yes very much in the style of the Halford solo project there's influence coming from all the major classic metal acts, adding gritty thrash on Hellbound And Down, some occult Mercyful Fate-like speed metal on Darkened MajestyVexed brings a bit more of muscle, Apology sounds like Nevermore (as does Fractured), the grinding Critical Cynic is a much more epic number while the title track is full of down-tuned aggression and gives Jordan Ziff (Ratt) a chance to unleash some six string wizardry. 

Rejoice In Suffering is a great traditional metal record Todd La Torre only not showing that he's a versatile singer, but also a great drummer and songwriter too. Even in the midst of a pandemic there are some upsides as who knows when this album would have seen the light of day with the rigorous touring schedule of his main band but it's great that it has come out. A quality metal album that I urge you seek out. 8/10 

Sins Of Magnus - The Circus (Self Released) [Matt Bladen]

Eric Early (vocals/bass), Rich Sutcliffe (guitars) and Sean Young (drums) make up Philly riffmeisters Sins Of Magnus, a slightly avantgarde heavy rock band that shift between slimy biker rocking, desert rock, doom and aggressive punk all played by three Viking's, they mention acts like Motorhead and Black Sabbath. The Circus is the band's third album (I believe) and it's got several genre changes throughout making it hard to classify but really the songs are all about trying to pack in as many riffs as possible, led by the heavy bottom end. With as many varying sounds on the record, though keeping it very much in the stoner rock vibe, it's quite a jarring listen occasionally, Unfettered Journey is crunching sludge rock, the punky False FlagYmir brings a doomier style as Flux Capacitor is a wild ride through madness. The Circus has a Faith No More vibe to it throughout, a snotty, doomy slice of riffing from the East Coast. 6/10

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