2 + 2 Reviews: Thanksgiving Week Edition

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Pardon our lengthy delay on this column. Both George and I got incredibly busy over the last few months but we’re back just in time for the holiday week. We decided to cover one album and one song each. George covered Mastodon’s new album and one song from the recently released Iron Maiden album. I covered Between the Buried and Me’s Colors 2 and one song from Dream Theater’s latest album. Anyhow, get that last minute turkey/Tofu Turkey shopping done and settle in for a few reviews from us.

Mastodon: Hushed and Grim

GF: A new Mastodon release is always something that I look forward to.

Have their last three albums measured up to their first three? Perhaps not, but at the same time, even those have tended to get at least a solid few weeks of constant listening from me… sometimes more.

While a bit too long and slightly unfocused, I thought, “The Hunter,” had some magnificent music on it— including one or two of the band’s best songs. “Once More Round the Sun,” was pretty underrated for my money, and perhaps the album where they figured out that they could write arena-worthy hooks with the best of them. “Emperor of Sand,” was something that I enjoyed quite a bit too. The quieter moments almost outshone some of the heavier stuff, and Brent Hinds continued to solidify his status as modern day metal’s most exciting soloist.

Those releases bring us to today, with, “Hushed and Grim,” an album that has rightly been hailed as their best work since, “Crack the Skye.”

This is a long album, but it goes down easy. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, I feel like it touches on just about everything the band has done, and done well, over the course of their career. 

While Scott Kelly’s once mandatory guest slot is dearly missed here, new collaborators pop in to fill the void, chief amongst them young country phenom Marcus King, and OG metal titan Kim Thayil.

In both cases, these gentlemen provide some rather brilliant lead guitar work, with the former injecting some down-home flavor into the Brent Hinds-led, “The Beast,” and the latter, adding a patented sonic exorcism, to “Had it all.”

As this album is so long, there are AMPLE opportunities for solos, and Brent Hinds plays like a man possessed all throughout the album. His uncanny, one-of-a-kind, fretboard slip-and-slide routine is still unlike anything practiced by his contemporaries. Here, he’s as good as he’s ever been, turning in career-best performances on songs like, “More Than I Could Chew,” and the album’s final three songs, most notably, closer, “Gigantium.”

Though the album has its more uptempo numbers, its overriding vibe is heavy, and sorrowful. A tribute to late band manager Nick John, these are sad songs reflecting on loss: songs that sound most honest when they’re crawling as opposed to running. The melancholy found on the slower numbers is beautiful in its own particular way, and the half-time numbers allow Mr. Hinds his best opportunities to flay his guitar alive.

While Hinds is certainly the star of the show here, it’s a bit of a bummer that he only has a few vocal turns on the album. Mastodon has become the Brann Dailor and Troy Sanders show in the singing department, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I do miss his voice. Dailor in particular is more than happy to pick up the slack, and his singing only continues to improve. If he’s not the best singer in the group at this point, he’s just behind Hinds.

With its greyscale cover art, save for a spare hit of gold, “Hushed and Grim,” is not only an astonishing piece of metal, but the perfect soundtrack for the bleak skies that we experience here in the midwest, during the fall. If you’re feeling down, this is an album that invites you to lean into your feelings, and be at peace with them.

Where the band goes from here, I’m not quite sure, but I feel as though they have certainly come upon a new stretch of their path. I’m very excited to hear what’s next, and I’m very thankful for the fact that they were able to channel their grief into such a tremendous piece of art.

Iron Maiden – The Parchment

GF: I feel like sometime around 2006, Iron Maiden very comfortably glided into what I’ll call mid-tempo Maiden mode.

This might sound like a knock, but it’s not. Save for the opener, “Different World,” their album, “A Matter of Life and Death,” was almost exclusively, full of numbers that stopped just shy of the band’s trademark gallop.

The frantic speed under which the band used to operate had been replaced. Here, in its stead, was epic proggy grandeur. It was a cool transition that 100% worked– it allowed the band to continue to make thoughtful and exciting music at a point in their career where most folks have run out of gas.

The music found on their most recent album, “Senjutsu,” cruises very comfortably in the new lane that the band carved out for themselves 15 years ago. These are long songs… knotty songs… that feature ample fireworks from the band. Of particular note, is the playing that we’re treated to, courtesy of Janick Gers, and Nicko McBrain, who steal the show.

While it’s ludicrous to expect men in their late 60s to go at things with the fury that was on display for songs like, “Gangland,” “Aces High,” or, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” I did find myself wanting to hear the band mount up just ONE more time on the album, and I feel like they got as close as they’re going to get during the grand finale of, “The Parchment.”

The song has three guitar solo sections. The best of course is the final one, and the proceedings kick off at the 9:52 mark. After a particularly epic, and proggy climb to the top of the mountain, (aided by a motif that recalls the verse riff of, “Hallowed be Thy Name,”) the band is finally ready to plant their flag, and show everyone what the business is.

As time has gone on, it’s become a bit harder for me to discern Dave Murray and Adrian Smith’s leads, so until we’re graced with a live version of this, I’m not gonna know who plays the second solo (but it’s probably Murray). That said, I think we can all safely say that it’s Mr. Gers who fires the first shot across the bow in the song’s final solo section.

And wow-wee, what a shot it is.

In the past, I’ve seen mumblings criticising his soloing within the band, as folks say it sounds a lot like Rainbow-era Ritchie Blackmore. I don’t think that’s necessarily unfair, but in recording this, he’s proven that he’s transcended.

Even Ritchie wasn’t cooking this kind of shit.

Here, rampant whammy bar abuse, and speedy runs galore, feel like a shotgun blast to the head, as Gers’ tone is absolutely WHITE HOT. It sounds like perhaps he’s playing through a cocked wah, but whatever it is, he’s rolling out the most vicious shit of his life. At its most frantic, it sounds like he’s trying as best as he can, to literally disembowel his guitar. 

It recalls Pete Cosey, when he played the Osaka afternoon show, back in 1975– fully diabolical.

Against a boosted tempo, and killer rhythm work from the rest of the band (check Nicko McBrain’s Bill Bruford-indebted cymbal work) it might be his most picture-frameable moment as a soloist within the band E-V-E-R.

The solo that follows is more tempered, and reminds me of the spaced-out bliss that we were treated to on “Powerslave.” It’s classic Maiden, and the ideal piece of punctuation for the longest (and for my money) most epic cut on the album.

Between the Buried and Me – Colors 2

BH: I recently got back from seeing the band in my first concert since the Before Times and boy did they put on a show.  While the setlist mostly focused on celebrating The Great Misdirect record and their 21 years of being a band, they’re clearly excited about the new record.  And they absolutely should be.  This may very well be the Paddington 2, T2, Empire Strikes Back-all rolled into one-best Sequel we could have possibly been lucky enough to receive.  

While it’s somehow not the only sequel record of the year (I’m looking at you The Night Flight Orchestra), Colors 2 has been easily one of the most anticipated albums of 2021.  Any time Between the Buried and Me put out a new record, it’s reason for excitement but Colors 2??  Colors is not only one of the bands best efforts but also one of the defining prog metal albums of all time.  

“Monochrome” starts off the album in a somewhat traditional manner for the band (and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all).  A soft key-laden intro that eventually gives way to the overall heavier direction this album will go in.  It’s a really nice lead-in to one of my favorite tracks on the album, “The Double Helix of Extinction”.  Tommy’s vocals are as harsh as ever and then how about that break around the two minute mark with the basketball game sound fx, mixed with some great percussion work from Blake.  Also, while I wouldn’t normally be into a band shouting their name on a song, it works really well in this instance.  It feels like a perfect live song too.  Next up is the single, “Revolution in Limbo”, which was really the track that made me feel most confident about a Colors sequel pre-release.  It reminds me of elements from “Sun of Nothing” from the OG Colors but is really its own thing.  

The other single, “Fix the Error”, we covered a bit here but I’ll just say it has only grown on me further since then, particularly as the band played it live.  Blake nailed the solo section all by himself and it was glorious.  “Never Seen/Future Shock” is one of the two longest songs on the record but it glides by for me.  There’s also an Affinity era Haken section here in the first four minutes that made me super amped.  Paul’s guitar work on this song is really impeccable.  I would say this album is loaded with memorable riffs and licks but really dig everything he does on this particular track.  Oh and then there’s the incredibly beautiful final two minutes of the song that remind me of sections from the Alaska era.  “Stare Into the Abyss” feels like a transitional song leading into the back half of the album but it certainly makes an impact with a catchy chorus and a brutal final minute. “Prehistory” AKA the song with Crash Bandicoot SFX!  I love this track and it pairs really nicely with the following track “Bad Habits”.  This song is another favorite and has a great callback to “Ants of the Sky” from Colors I both lyrically and in the structure of the song itself.  Tommy once again delivers great vocal lines throughout this track.  Also at the five minute point of the song, there’s a really top-tier bit of musicianship with everyone that takes us through to the final minutes of the song.  

I’m not sure why “The Future is Behind Us” became initially controversial between fans but for my money it’s a definite favorite song here.  The 80’s vibes here kick so much ass.  The keys mixed with Tommy’s vocals and chorus is so insanely good.  Plus any song with a Ferris Bueller reference gets major props from me.  “Turbulent” feels a bit like a second act to “The Future is Behind Us” and has Blake go properly mad on his kit in the second half.  “Sfumato” is a one minute track that primarily sets us up for the finale similar to what “Viridian” did for “White Walls” on Colors I.  

The final song on Colors 2, “Human is Hell (Another One With Love)” doesn’t attempt to be “White Walls” part two.  Instead it sets its own path of monstrous destruction with a fifteen minute runtime that never overstays its welcome.

I’ve got to say Colors 2 is one of my favorite albums this year and this may be one of the best albums the band has done to date.    

 

Dream Theater – Answering the Call

BH: I thought about reviewing the entire new Dream Theater album as it’s really good (and who knows maybe I still will) but in the meantime, highlighting one of my favorite cuts on it entitled Answering the Call. 

Before I jump into it though, I want to point out that this is the fifth album since Portnoy left the band and fifteenth overall.  It’s impressive that the band keeps creating innovative new music and pushing their boundaries.  It’s not easy losing such a key member of the band and fortunately at this point, drummer Mike Mangini has really gelled with the group.  He’s a phenomenal player anyhow but between this album and their previous, Distance Over Time, he’s really come into his own with the virtuoso musicians in the band. 

Anyhow, this song is one hell of a banger and actually has some Octavarium vibes on it which as a long time fan, is greatly appreciated.  That opening riff is super catchy, the chorus is strong and the outro (and build to it) might be one of the strongest moments in a DT song in some time.  It reminds me of a Gojira outro and is really heavy.

When I gave the new album its first spin, I was immediately drawn to this track.  It’s classic DT through and through.  I also noticed that not only with this song but the majority of the album, the band is doing a great job of balancing the technicality with accessibility. 

Jordan’s keys here are mostly subtle layers and work nicely alongside Petrucci’s riffs.  Also, Myung is really crushing it.  I really dig his interplay with Petrucci on the previously mentioned outro. 

For whatever reason, part of the fanbase has felt Labrie is the weak point with the band but quite honestly Dream Theater wouldn’t be the same without him.  He has a knack for catchy vocal lines and he still sounds top-notch.  Particularly on this track he’s really on his game.

Dream Theater remains one of the most important bands in the prog space and Answering the Call further proves this is the case.  

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