June 22, 2008

Judas Priest Delivers the Big One

Rating: 5

After much hype and fanfare, "Nostradamus" is upon us, and as promised, it's a big one, comprised of 23 songs over the course of more than 100 minutes. More of a loose narrative akin to Iron Maiden's similarly themed "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son," as opposed to a full-on rock opera like Queensryche's "Operation: Mindcrime,""Nostradamus" is surprisingly streamlined, the bruising attack of guitarists Glen Tipton and K.K. Downing, bassist Ian Hill, and drummer Scott Travis accentuated only by guitar synth, the tasteful keyboard work of veteran Don Airey, and minimal string arrangements. It makes for a rather unusual sound, perhaps even a little dated, especially when compared to the overblown, orchestral bombast of the likes of Therion and Dimmu Borgir. For a while, "Nostradamus" manages to win us over, as the majority of Disc One features a band that's focused, passionate, and sounding as potent as ever. "Revelations," with its synth underpinnings, is a daring blend of brooding atmospherics and a rote yet comfortable mid-tempo hard rock groove. Unfortunately, the rest of the album fails to maintain the momentum set by Disc One's highlights. Sappy ballads "Lost Love" and "New Beginnings" are absolutely embarrassing forays into Andrew Lloyd Webber's ham-fisted sentimentality, while the second disc grinds to a complete halt, the trio of "Solitude,""Exiled," and "Alone" taking 15 lugubrious minutes focusing on a theme that one song could have accomplished. It all makes for a bewildering package, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes middling, and sometimes astonishingly bad, and while a good 45 minutes' worth of "Nostradamus" is fully deserving of high praise, on a 100-minute double album, that's nowhere near enough. - Adrien BegrandWolf Parade: 'At Mount Zoomer' (Sub Pop)

Rrating: 7

The relatively clean-cut "Apologies to the Queen Mary" left us wondering whether the band might continue on the same trajectory and if so, what an even more polished Wolf Parade record might sound like. Could the Montreal four-piece be just one "Float On" away from mainstream success? "At Mount Zoomer" answers this question, definitively and the response is likely to catch fans off-guard yet again. From the opening notes of "Soldier's Grin," it's clear that Wolf Parade have finally ceded what ground remained to their pop instincts, commencing the album with the most accessible tune of their career. Low synth croaks trade off with jangly power chords while a bouncy keyboard melody weaves in and out of the spaces in between. Sure, it's essentially a gussied-up dance punk tune but it's an exhilarating ride of a song nonetheless. But then, all of a sudden, something strange happens. Two minutes into the nearly five- minute-long song, the band abruptly hits the brakes. As the tempo slows to a crawl, the synths scatter off in different directions and choppy riffs give way to proggy noodling. Unlike their previous album, which often felt more like a singles collection than an album, "Mount Zoomer" begs to be approached as a unified whole. This proves to be a double-edged sword, however: while Zoomer's narrative arc and sonic explorations leave the listener with considerably more to chew on, its victories are harder-fought than those on the comparatively accessible "Apologies." While "Mount Zoomer" is not likely to stand as Wolf Parade's definitive statement, it does represent a bold step in a new direction and gives us a good idea as to where the band is headed: anywhere but the mainstream. - Mehan JayasuriyaThe Notwist: 'The Devil, You + Me' (Domino)

Rating: 6

In the half-dozen years between new studio albums from Germany's the Notwist, a lot has happened in the music world. The omnipresence of electronic tones-dominant in the soundscape at the turn of the century - was replaced by the return of "real" rock 'n' roll. Coming less than six months after 9/11, the Notwist's "Neon Golden" served as a perfect soundtrack for the feelings of claustrophobia, sadness, and alienation that permeated the air during that time. Here in the middle of 2008, the knife-to-the-gut fear of terrorism has been largely replaced by the nagging stomachaches of a looming recession and global warming. Amazingly, despite all the changes around them and all of these side efforts, the Notwist have picked up right where they left off in 2002. Frankly, the band's reluctance to change would be fine if the material were exceptional. Instead, it's merely quite good. When a great album like "Neon Golden" is followed by a lesser work, it's hard not to be disappointed. This is despite the fact that, had the same work come from a different artist, it would make for a totally satisfying listen. So, those of you unfamiliar with the Notwist might actually be more inclined to be excited by "The Devil, You + Me." Eventually, though, you will be drawn into the wondrous world of "Neon Golden," and you will see what the Notwist are capable of creating. They may never reach that height again, but they'll have to live with each subsequent effort being held up against their masterpiece, nonetheless. - Michael KeefeSilver Jews: 'Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea' (Drag City)

Rating: 6

The new album finds the Silver Jews breaking some of the band's long-formed rules. Chief among them is the album title which, for the first time in their history, contains more than two words. But that seemingly surface-level switch is a small hint into an album that finds the Silver Jews breaking out in more than one way. The band behind Berman has once again topped themselves. They've taken all the energy of "Tanglewood Numbers" and filtered it through the traditionally country-touched Silver Jews sound. These songs are stripped down, but full of riding guitar riffs and percussive keys, often burying the simple chords of Berman's acoustic guitar, making it a small piece on which to build. And much of the time, these songs build to something wonderful. The best are infused with a new hope that was absent from Berman's old songs. He has broken from the fatalism of his early work in favor of something a little more hopeful. "My Pillow is a Threshold" isn't exactly unbridled joy, but it finds Berman dreaming of happiness and not more dread. In "Suffering Jukebox," Berman offers an answer to Johnny Paycheck's "The Meanest Jukebox," where the title machine isn't the perpetrator of sadness, but the ignored victim of a happy town. "Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea" is hit and miss, but its missteps come as a result of admirable risks. To see Berman take on a more hopeful, and occasionally lighter, set of songs is great for the future of the band. But whenever you strike new ground, you do have to find new footing, and the Silver Jews are in that transitional moment with this album. - Matt Fiander

Originally published by PopMatters.com.

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