Volbeat Deserving Of “Next Big Thing” Status; Amaranthe Presents Unique Sound

One of the things I enjoy in my well-rounded life is some great music. There are things that I come across that I simply cannot stand (such as Taylor Swift’s caterwauling…seriously, can someone give the girl a gift certificate to buy a voice?), but when I come across something I find great, I like to tell people about it. As my general preference is for harder edged rock, it will often go in that direction (but not always…).

Of late, there are several bands that I am very high on. Previously I told you about Halestorm and, if you want to get on that train, they should have a new album out towards the end of the year (meanwhile, jump on their ReAniMate 3.0 covers album). Here’s two more that you should be considering: one is a major opener for one of the biggest tours of the summer and the other presenting a different sound, if you will, in the hard rock genre. As always, I don’t claim to be on the band first, but I do think they’ve got some legs to them for the future!

Volbeat

Volbeat is a band out of Denmark that has been a 16-year “overnight success.” Despite having great success in Europe with their mixture of rockabilly, hard rock, and punk – surprisingly, the band rarely embraces a hard-core metal or thrash sound – Volbeat was unable to penetrate the U. S. market to any great extent. That changed with their latest release, Seal the Deal and Let’s Boogie, which debuted in the Billboard Magazine‘s Top Five Albums the week of its release last year. As we speak, Volbeat is joined by Avenged Sevenfold (on some stops) as the warmup acts for the massive Metallica “WorldWired” tour that is hitting stadiums in the U. S. and worldwide.

That they all are considered hard rock acts (Metallica delves into thrash metal and A7X crushes their more metalcore sound) demonstrates the diversity of the hard rock arena. Volbeat, as stated before, aren’t your typical metalheads, incorporating sounds from across the spectrum into their particular brew. On earlier efforts, Volbeat’s sound was more inspired by country music such as Johnny Cash (their effort previous to this, Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies, had a theme to it that gave you impressions of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western). With Seal the Deal, however, Volbeat has a sound more reminiscent of The Offspring than anything else.

The first song on the album, “The Devil’s Bleeding Crown,” was a very strong effort that just didn’t seem to click with U. S. audiences when it was released as a single. It wasn’t until the eponymous title track was released that some success occurred for singer Michael Poulsen, guitarist Rob Caggiano and bassist Kaspar Boye Larsen. “Seal the Deal” was a powerful piece of music that rumbled from the speakers, with the guitars provided by Caggiano being particularly notable. Since then, hard rock radio has been all over “Black Rose,” which may outdo “Seal the Deal” in popularity.

Surprisingly, Volbeat can sound almost melodic with the music they create. Do not be fooled, however, they do have an edginess to their lyrics that can be surprising and, in some songs, imagery of Hell and the Devil are implied. There are tunes about darkness, redemption and “selling the soul” that some might not like. That would be their misfortune, because most of the songs have a finish where, if the protagonist doesn’t emerge on top, they are at least fighting towards the future.

Along with the songs mentioned above, there are a couple other efforts that are noteworthy on Seal the Deal and Let’s Boogie. “The Gates of Babylon” is a very good track from the album, but it is a cover song on the album that is even more surprising because of its quality. Taken from the Georgia Satellites (an 80s outfit that is highly underrated), “Battleship Chains” demonstrates that Volbeat takes their inspiration from a wide assortment of musical genres. The future is going to be fantastic for this band and, with the next couple of years, I can easily see them becoming a huge part of the music scene in the U. S.

Another great foreign act that has been chipping away at the walls in the U. S. (the metaphorical ones, not the ones some idiot wants to put up) is Sweden’s Amaranthe. Another one of those multi-year “overnight sensations,” the band actually started in 2008 and has been pretty much non-stop touring and recording since then. They had a bit of success in 2013 with the song “Drop Dead Cynical” from their Massive Addictive album, but they have found their stride with their latest release, Maximalism.

Pinning Amaranthe down to a “sound” is roughly like trying to give a cougar a bubble bath in a thimble. First off, the band encompasses some elements of EDM but loves to roll out a metal guitar assault to go over the hypnotic background. They can sometimes veer into the realm of “pop” music, which may offend some of those who are more hardcore, but they always seem to be able to bring it back to a more “hard rock” sound when necessary. That may be because of the triumvirate of vocalists that Amaranthe employs.

Amaranthe

That’s right…three vocalists. First there is Elize Ryd, who gives an ethereal quality to some songs when she’s not rocking out with an unbelievable voice. Ryd gives credibility to the Amaranthe sound whether they are in their more experimental modes or they are driving the guitars down your throat. A nice meshing with Ryd WAS Joacim “Jake E.” Lundberg, who had a voice that harmonized nicely with Ryd as they performed the “clean” vocals (Lundberg, after the release of Maximalism, left the band and was replaced by Nils Molin).

There’s a reason I say “clean” vocals. The third vocal effort on the album is Henrik Englund, who provides the “death growl (a guttural vocal styling where it sounds like the beasts from Hell are emerging from your speakers)” or the “unclean” vocals on the record. While it may sound like it is a complete mess, Amaranthe has been able to put together songs that perfectly accentuate the stylings of each of their singers and, likewise, the other members of the band (Olof Morck on guitars and keyboards, Johan Andreassen on bass and Morten Lowe on drums).

Of particular excellence is “Boomerang,” an effort that would have been perfect on pop radio had it not been for the crushing guitars and Englund’s growling of his lyrics. A song about how someone tries to put another person down – but the person keeps coming back “like a boomerang” – it is an outstanding tune that epitomizes Amaranthe very well. Two other songs, “That Song” and “21” are also excellent, but most surprising is a ballad that demonstrates the abilities of the band quite well.

Supersonic” is a tune that Englund takes a break from and let’s Ryd and Lundberg exercise their vocal abilities on. Yes, it is a ballad – and everyone usually HATES a metal ballad – but it works for Amaranthe because of the dual vocals (not a duet – each vocalist has a lyrical segment written for them). Using some orchestral instrumentation along with the band’s musicians, it may give some a comparison to Amy Lee and Evanescence, but “Supersonic” soars in its own right and serves as an excellent “palate cleanser” for an outstanding record.

You may not have heard of them yet, but they’ve got the potential – especially with Ryd’s photogenic qualities and the power of the band – to be a breakout act, possibly even on the pop charts (bands always appreciate crossover success, not to mention their record companies). They’ll have to get control of some of their personnel issues – not only from Lundberg’s departure last year, but Englund replaced original “unclean” vocalist Andreas Solveström in 2013 – to fully realize their potential, but if they can record more albums like Maximalism, it will push Amaranthe into the stratosphere of the hard rock/metal world.

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The Top Ten Underrated Hard Rock Songs, Part One

guitarist

As a method of getting away from the madness that is the 2016 General Election, I’ve been pondering other issues. Of course, I’ve been keeping up with Timeless (which, if you haven’t checked it out yet, you’re missing some good television) and I’ve been trying to finish reading a book that a friend of mine wrote long ago (and, with him in failing health, I’d like to tell him that I read it and enjoyed it, despite some early problems with his usage of an occurrence in our line of work). Then there’s always something going on in sports that can be talked about, whether it is Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton whining to the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, that he’s being hit too often (there are times he has a point, but not every time), the “Chase for the Sprint Cup” (ZZZZZZZZZZZ!) or baseball’s World Series (and congrats to the Chicago Cubs for winning this year and ensuring that Hell is freezing over; even as a New York Yankees fan, it’s great to see a team win it that hasn’t done it in 108 years).

But one thing we can always discuss (and something that I do like thinking about) is music. In the 20+ years I spent in the radio industry, I was always looking to pick the “next big song” to get on the air. I remember one time when I was the Music Director for a station where we debated whether to put the band Faith No More and the song “Epic” on the air. “It’s rap, it isn’t rock,” our Program Director stated. “No, it is a hybrid,” I replied. “You’ll start seeing more of this in the future – the melding of genres to reach as big an audience as possible (something I was proven correct on – for good or for ill).” After the debate, the PD finally added it as the song became one of the biggest tunes of 1989 and has since gone on to be called one of the greatest metal songs of all-time (#30 on VH1’s list) and one of the biggest one-hit wonders of all time (#67, once again by VH1), a bit of an insult to a band that had a great influence on many others.

Along this line, I found myself recently reflecting on what were some of the most underrated hard rock songs in history. To be honest, some of these bands were quite popular, even without these listed songs having a great of success, but it could have been so much better for them if these songs had touched on their audience better than they did. Look through the list and enjoy the songs, then be sure to let me know whether I’ve got it right, I’m completely fucking nuts and/or the songs that you think deserve to be on the list!

Motörhead, Ice-T and Whitford Crane (Ugly Kid Joe), “Born to Raise Hell”

Separately these performers had some success. Motörhead, led by the late Lemmy Kilmister, was always at the forefront of the heavy metal scene from the late 70s to this decade. Ice-T, through his rapping, was quite well known, but T had a desire to do hard rock (to the point of forming Body Count, which barely missed this list with “There Goes the Neighborhood”). Crane was, at this point in time, the one well known by the listening public as, with his band Ugly Kid Joe, Crane had several hits by this point in 1994 (“Everything About You,” “Neighbor” and a remake of balladeer Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle”).

This was a chance for everyone involved to get together and have a bit of fun doing a song for the soundtrack to the movie Airheads (a highly underrated movie, lots of fun and entertaining). Taking an old Motörhead song that Lemmy had written for another band, they blasted the tune that became the theme song for the film. Unfortunately for everyone, it didn’t go as far as they thought it might; the film has become a cult classic but didn’t do well at the time of its release and the soundtrack album even less so. As such, it finds its place on this list.

Extreme, “Decadence Dance”

This was a band that should have gotten more attention in their time than they did. With vocals from Gary Cherone (who would go on to join Van Halen after the departure of Sammy Hagar) and guitar work from Nuno Bettencourt (a classically-trained virtuoso if ever there was one), Extreme did have a big hit with the power ballad “More Than Words” (history lesson here, young ones – hard rock and metal bands and artists could play as hard as they wanted if they included one ballad on their albums…that was what drew in the ladies). Their perceived magnum opus, Three Sides to Every Story, didn’t hold a candle to their 1990 effort Pornograffitti, from which this song came.

Along with “Get the Funk Out” (also found on this album and a gem in its own right), Extreme could meld hard rock, funky horns and the classical guitar work of Bettencourt into a sound that was quite intriguing to fans of the genre. Unfortunately, it didn’t ensure a long career for the band. Once Cherone left for Van Halen in 1996, the band broke up. They’ve since reformed (as most bands do) and are releasing a new album that is set to drop in 2017. Perhaps they wouldn’t have lost Cherone if this and other tracks had been more than moderately successful.

Faster Pussycat, “You’re So Vain”

The first of our two remakes on this list, Faster Pussycat was a part of the L. A. club scene of the 80s that produced such acts as Mötley Crüe, L. A. Guns and Guns N’ Roses, among others. Named after the Russ Meyer film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the band earned some kudos for their power ballad (sensing the trend here?) “The Ballad of Jayne,” but this remake of the Carly Simon classic should have propelled them to higher points. Perhaps it was because of where it was released; the 1990 double album Rubaiyat:  Elektra’s 40th Anniversary saw artists as diverse as The Cure, Tracy Chapman, Metallica, the Georgia Satellites and others joining Faster Pussycat in doing songs made famous by past Elektra artists. The sheer number of outstanding performances led to difficulty in only picking one great remake.

What I liked about this song was that they took what was a kind ballad (despite its lyrical bite, courtesy of Simon) and put the edge to it that Simon had in writing the song. The guitar work of Brent Muscat and Greg Steele alongside the sneering vocals of Taime Downe worked perfectly with the material they had to use. We could have gone perhaps with “Bathroom Wall” (one of their earlier works), but this one was one of their last chances at success before…well, we’ll get to that in Part Two.

Damn Yankees, “Piledriver”

It is tough for some to accept that Damn Yankees were underrated in anything. With Jack Blades (formerly of Night Ranger), Tommy Shaw (of Styx) and the Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent, handing the musicianship, they had some Top 40 success with this supergroup. But while Blades had his “Night Ranger”-esque songs (“Coming of Age” and “High Enough”) and Shaw had his Styxian tunes (“Come Again”), it was Uncle Ted who was left without a display of his talents.

You’ve got to dive deep on their eponymous debut album to find “Piledriver,” a Nugent-esque tour de force that reaches out and grabs you from the beginning. The jingling doodling from Nuge suddenly explodes in a blitzkrieg of guitar that never again lets up on the listener. “Piledriver” is also the only song that Nugent sings for Damn Yankees, who normally utilized Ted just as a guitar god, harkening back to his pre-“Cat Scratch Fever” days when artists such as Meat Loaf were the vocalist on his solo albums.

Dangerous Toys, “Scared”

This Austin, TX band could have been so much bigger than they were in the 80s. Most often compared to Guns N’ Roses, Dangerous Toys had a lot of the same stylings as the Axl Rose led outfit, but also incorporated plenty of blues licks and Southern rock attitude into their music. You just have to listen to “Teas’n, Pleas’n” to get this sound in your head.

Scared” was the tune that was supposed to have carried them over the top into superstardom, but it only served as a place marker while the audience waited for their next effort. Their second album, Hellacious Acres, didn’t do quite as well as expected and the tour that would have supported their effort, called “Operation Rock & Roll” (it was just after the start of the First Gulf War) with such acts as Motörhead, Judas Priest and Alice Cooper, was shut down only 10 weeks into the schedule. Dangerous Toys never again reached the levels of success that they did after their eponymous first release which, from front to back, is a classic.

There’s plenty for you to listen to here, so we’ll take a break. But Part Two will bring you more of those underrated gems of hard rock and the reason why the genre seemingly disappeared overnight.