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Music Review: Heaven & Hell, Mastodon, Queensryche, Crescent Shield, and Spheric Universe Experience

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Been listening to a whole heck of a lot of music the last few weeks as I am writing another novel. Some good metal is a great way of keeping me in the right mood to produce my latest piece of fiction.

First I feel I must start with a touch of rather sad news on the band Evanscapps, whose debut release I reviewed last week in this column. On May 6, Ean Evans lost his battle with cancer. His colleague in the band Bobby Capps had this to say.

“Although I am having a hard time with all of this, I made a promise to Ean, and I intend to see it through. I have consulted with Ean's family, and we have all agreed that we should carry the torch that he ignited three years ago when we started this CD. One of his biggest dreams was to have this music heard. He was so proud when the project was finally signed and the record was going to get the distribution it so well deserved. I know in my heart of hearts that he is smiling down on us today, proud that our efforts will finally have a chance to be heard. He always said, ‘This music will do the talking if we can just get people to hear it.’”

Heaven & Hell: The Devil You Know

Heaven & Hell, aka Black Sabbath without Ozzy, has released their new album after touring the country over the last year or so. After again burying the hatchet after the debacle that was the proposed “joint vocalist tour” post their last release Dehuminizer, they have produced a rather good album. To my mind this far outdoes anything this version of Black Sabbath has done since their album Heaven & Hell.

The band took a huge gamble evoking that classic release with the moniker of this effort. It is refreshing to see the band have followed in the footsteps of those who only release a decent album in order to tour rather than putting out any ole crap just for the excuse. There are songs on this CD which can clearly share a stage with Dio fronted Black Sabbath has produced. I would wager this release tops anything released by Dio, Ozzy, or Black Sabbath for many a moon.

While maybe not as instant as say Sabbath’s Heaven & Hell it certainly grows with the listening. It's full of the bombast that you have come to expect from anything that Dio puts his name to. “Bible Black” and “Eating the Cannibals” certainly have all that one requires for a memorable song.

On the basis of this release Ozzy might just regret blowing off Sabbath for a new solo album. Let’s hope this version of Black Sabbath continues to record and tour.

Queensryche: American Soldier

I heard all sorts of things about this CD from various outlets. It has been praised to high heaven in some quarters claiming it's their best since their heyday of “Operation: Mindcrime” and the huge follow-up “Empire”. I am not quite so sure that is anything that lives up to either of those two. After many listens to this CD, I think “Mindcrime II” still holds up better to repeated listens.

The subject matter is as “courageous” as people say it is and its interesting they chose to release another concept album so soon after MII. The theme of the American soldier is a complex one that needs to be handled delicately for fear of coming across as twee or unappreciative of their efforts. This offends in neither of those ways and is respectful of the subject at hand.

The only trouble is that the songs are just not that great. There is nothing memorable or dare I say catchy? The tracks come across as morose and moribund with nothing to raise above the merely decent. The clips from actual soldiers are used in the right sense of proportion, but the small child singing off key can be grating.

It’s a valiant effort that fails to take off. I shall report back later if I find it to be a “grower”. Chris Degarmo is still sorely missed by this band.

Mastodon: Crack the Sky

Holy sheep dip, this band has managed to top themselves again in their inexorable rise to share the prog-metal title with Rush and their ilk. This album is just an amazing hybrid of metal and prog sensibilities that just shines with every listen. The tracks range from sub four minute wonders to epic soundscapes that cover thirteen minutes in the form of “The Last Baron”.

There never seems to be a superfluous note or any dragging in any of the tracks. The band seem to have made sure that whatever they produce on this CD has oodles of merit. It almost makes it hard to describe how good this release is to ponder. I would venture to say it clearly places Mastodon in the same realm of talent as Opeth. This is their “Blackwater Park”, their sign to the world that they are not scared to go where ever their muse takes them.

What has never ceased to amuse me is that the vocals sound quite a bit Ozzy like, which makes a contrast to the musical content. If you need something to keep you enthralled before the next release from Opeth and Therion I would strongly encourage you to seek this out. The only question is where this lot are headed next. I shall be along for the ride I assure you.

Crescent Shield: The Stars of the Never Seen

What you have here is an impressive slab of power metal from this lot of Americans. Needless to say they have a touch of the Iced Earth about them, but there is also quite a strong Scandinavian influence about. It might have something to do with their fantasy themed lyrics.

Started as a side-project of a member of the now-defunct bands Onward and Destiny’s End, this band now has Michael Grant and Dom Deluchia’s full attention. Oh yes, and they have a female band member, on bass, which is unusual in the genre, but welcome.

That concentration seems to have pulled off in droves with this fine collection of power metal goodness. This is quality stuff without the cliché and normal copying of the majors of the genre. There are even touches of Judas Priest at its most proggy in songs like “The Grand Horizon”. There is quite a bit to sink your teeth into on this release.

Cruz del Sur seems to have a knack at finding diamonds in the rough. Unlike some labels, they continue to surprise me with quality of their metal discoveries. Crescent Shield is one of the best of a rather good bunch.

Spheric Universe Experience: Unreal

I am guessing the name sounded a lot better in French, as this lot hail from Nice. The lead singer sounds like the bloke from Stryper, with the range, and the music sounds like a more esoteric Dream Theater. Now those two things might just fill you with a sense of horror and angst. Fear not for this is a delectable combination of intricate and delightfully over the top progressive metal. They have found the right formula of heaviness, clever playing and musicality that makes for quite a good listen.

There are hints of Hawkwind, Zappa, and other bands who concocted “space rock”. SUE are keen to live up to their name and handle a variety of odd subjects. This is all wrapped nicely in some of cracking progressively metal tunes. While they are obviously clever and heavy on the musical talent, they know to retain that key element of being proper tunes. They even have that other element so often lacking from this sort of release, catchiness.

Its great to hear a progressive metal band that adds that distinctive French flair to their efforts. There is something refreshingly interesting about this release and I would suggest that its worth seeking out for fans of the genre.

Well, that is your lot for this week. A good batch overall. Please make sure to check out live bands if you can and stay safe.

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