Thursday, May 7, 2015

New Release! Raven - ExtermiNation

One of my longstanding favorite metal bands from the 1980s - Raven - has recently released their new album, ExtermiNation, and for anyone with any doubts about whether the Gallagher brothers + Joe Hasselvander still rock as hard as they did back in the 1980s (true, it was a different drummer prior to '87) or as they did with their more recent (2010) Walk Through Fire. . .  its clear that the answer is a resounding Yes! (In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that the affirmative needs to be accompanied by some quick headbanging and a double moloch.)

I'm extremely fortunate to have a fellow metalhead in my wife -- it means that I not only get to play a variety of metal without enduring groans of complaints at home, not only that I get encouraged to write in this very blog, but also that I have a hot companion who enjoys live acts as much as I do.  Both of us have been eagerly awaiting this new release together -- for two interconnected reasons.

Seeing Raven Live Back in September

Last fall, we drove down to the city to a show featuring two bands neither one of us had seen on stage before -- Accept as the headliner, and Raven as their "very special" guest.  Despite getting caught for over an hour in bad traffic (typically poorly coordinated construction!) on the Palisades in Jersey, we made it close enough to miss only the very first Raven song, "Take Control."  (They played a seven-song set -- well, nine actually, if you divide up the three song medley they did!)

As much as we were looking forward to Accept, we were even more excited to see Raven, living icons of New Wave of British Heavy Metal History.  For me, Raven had been one of those bands -- with a unique sound -- formative of my metal sensibilities during my teenage years.  Metal Killers Kollection included one of their songs, Wiped Out, and when I found out that one of my much more band-savvy metal-connection buddies had all four of their albums (at that time), I begged him to record me some cassette tapes of them, and then listened to them over and over again until they unravelled years later.

The show, all told, was excellent -- Accept was great, as we had expected but also really welcomed, but Raven was simply brilliant!  It was general admission, and we got there just as the show had started, filled with an audience of leather and denim-clad, band-t-shirted metalheads, some of them clearly mid-20s aficionados making sense of a newly revived genre, but many more of them approximate to us in age -- people who had loved these bands in their 80s heydays, when we all were younger, considerably thinner, and given to the balls-out athleticism of headbanging until one's neck was practically limp.  Now, you could see a lot of raised fists and horns pumping, and definitely some head and hair movement, but in more relaxed, less frenetic vectors.

It's true that the band has aged, as all of us have!  Mark and John Gallager are no longer the thin, lanky young men who had garbed up in sports gear and coined the phrase "athletic rock" back in the 1970s and through the 80s  -- but they still put on a high-energy show.  Mark Gallager is probably best described at present as portly, but bounces all over the stage, and blazes away on his guitar, cradling it into himself so singlemindedly that it almost appears that he squeezes riffs, solos, and screams out of it.  John Gallager is now stocky as well, but still puts in his energetic double duty on bass and vocals, aided by the fact that he doesn't need to cycle the mike.  Joe Hasselvander, stuck behind his kit, hammers away -- and every one of the guys was either grinning ear to ear nearly the whole time (John and Joe) or (Mark) alternating between a joyful smile and an abstracted look, lost within his artistry onstage.  If you'd like to see what I'm talking about, check out "Live at the Inferno," which features the brothers grinding their axes held aloft at one point!

One of the things most remarkable about this band that I was happy to see -- or rather hear -- had remained the same, defying the passage of decades, was John Gallagher's sheer vocal power and range.  It's uncanny to see a vocalist retain such strength -- and even more command over an undiminished high range (and Gallagher's high end has always been very very high indeed!).  So many great singers have had to progressively down-tune, take pauses for breath, shorten their sustains . . .  Raven has a frontman who sings just as amazingly as he did in their earlier heydays.  In fact, one might even say that age has given him yet more power -- a low end that has more bass to it, now a bit gravelly, incorporating a roughness he can seemingly turn on or off at will!

The ExtermiNation Kickstarter Campaign

In October, we got notified of a new development -- Raven had a new album in the works, and they had started a Kickstarter campaign to finance part of the production costs -- one of the sad facts of the current music business is that some of the labels have less money to invest into truly great, long-established acts like Raven.  So, instead of taking No for an answer, they plowed ahead and put the question to their fans:  Will the new album happen or not?  They ended up getting an outpouring of support that nearly doubled what they were asking for -- but not before John put up one of his prized guitars for the cause.

This was the very first Kickstarter I've ever thought about contributing to (my wife had done some previously), and when we saw the announcement, we decided to jump in, joining at the $50 level -- not least because I had my eye on getting another Raven concert t-shirt to go along with the "All For One" shirt I've already got (which I wore last Fall to the Judas Priest and Steel Panther show!)

It's been pretty exciting following the progress, reading the updates, listening to the early releases, and seeing the pledges add up -- Raven lunatics are still out there, and have a bit more disposable income than we did as kids in the 1980s!  It was cool feeling oneself part of something metal, in a different way than what one senses out in the crowd at a live show -- watching their project develop, seeing their dedication and gratitude, and knowing that it was going to culminate in something really awesome.  They're now in process of mailing out the rewards (including an exclusive second album -- Raven doing their favorite cover songs), but they released ExtermiNation a bit early for their Kickstarter backers.  I downloaded it immediately, and we started listening that day!

So, On The New Album. . . 

I could start by saying that there is not a single weak, questionable, "filler" song on this entire album -- but that's just to say that these four decades-plus rock and roll veterans did a competent job, as one would expect. Instead, let me wax a bit more effusive and enthusiastic in my praise. . .

ExtermiNation is quite possibly the finest album that Raven has ever produced.  That's saying a LOT, and in three important respects.

First, it measures up to any of their classic albums -- their first four powerhouses (Wiped Out. . . .), which established them as a band to be reckoned with -- but also their more recent, and excellent album, Walk Through Fire. They break some new musical ground here, as they've nearly always done, but they give nothing up in the process.

Second, if we compare this as a representative portion of a lifetime body of work, this solidly establishes Raven (if anyone had doubts) within a pantheon that includes such rightfully legendary acts as Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Iron Maiden, UFO, the Scorpions, Accept, and Dio.  This is a top-tier band, playing like a top-tier metal act.

Third, if we compare ExtermiNation against some of the other great recent releases by classic (i.e. 1970s and 1980s) metal bands, again, this may very well take the number one slot.  I've got in mind Judas Priest's Redeemer of Souls, Chrome Molly's Gunpowder Diplomacy (which I'll be writing about in the near future, Ace Frehley's Space Invader, Motorhead's Aftershock, and Accept's Blind Rage.  This album can be favorably compared with any of them. . .

Raven has always been a bit experimental -- you might think of them of the Rush or the Yes of actual metal, so confidently anchored in the mainstays of the genre, so competent in their musicianship that they were free to incorporate whatever they chose into their songs.  On this album, it's clear that there's some musical influence and homage from a variety of sources -- there's passages where while listening you'll be reminded of bands as fundamentally different as Megadeth, (pre-Hagar) Van Halen, Queensryche, Iron Maiden, Accept, and even Metal Church.  At the same time, there's a definite contemporary power-metal sensibility running through many of the tracks -- particularly in terms of the drumming.

[As a side-note, those who've read my previous posts about metal know that one of my pet peeves with present-day metal -- ranking up there with my dislike of interminable, chromatic, self-indugent guitar solo "shredding"-- is the prominence of what one might call simply "too much drumming".  There's a tendency to simply fill the air with non-stop, sixteenth-note cacaphony that all tends to end up sounding more or less the same, no matter what band for which it is laying down the rhythm track.  There is, to be sure, a bit of this, on a few of the tracks of this album, but most importantly, it doesn't distract. . . ]

Simply put, this is a must-have album for anyone who is interested in contemporary heavy metal.  If we have to pick a genre to place it within, it would be Power Metal -- but it's not just that.  This is classic New Wave of British Heavy Metal, updated to the present day, by a band that has decades of achievements to their credit and is, quite simply, in their musical prime in the present.  Decades down the line, anyone who didn't purchase this album is going to be kicking themselves for their oversight!


Reviews of Selected Tracks

ExtermiNation includes a generous fifteen songs -- even the bonus track, beginning with a bit of Mandarin and English repartee is a real piece  (though there is a relatively short instrumental, "Golden Dawn") -- so I'm not going to attempt to review all of the songs here (though I've been listening to them every day for the last week).  I will, however, give you my take on one third of the album.  It's too early in the game to call these my favorite songs -- sometimes it takes months to sort those matters out, and all of the songs are quite simply great -- but here's my early picks:

"Intro/Destroy All Monsters":  How could this 6-minute track not make it into the top 5?  The album begins on a typically frenetic Raven song constructed on signature power chords over a bounding and bouncing bass line, but the rhythm section has been augmented by the heavy, fast-pace, non-stop drumming (with some great cymbal play).  A very catchy hook running throughout, leading into the chanted demand "Exterminate!"  Effectively the title track for the album, solidly establishing a contemporary ethos for the entire work

"Thunder Down Under":  This is a must-listen precisely because in it, Raven brilliantly -- and not heavy-handedly celebrates one of the key figures in 1970s metal, AC/DC's Bon Scott (and yes, I realize that there's a long-open question about whether they're rightly placed in the metal pantheon).  This is a more straightforward metal, riff-based, old-school drum and bass driven song, in which they manage to work in lyrical reference after reference to classic AC/DC songs.  There's nothing forced about it though -- just pure playing about and homage.

"The River of No Return":  Starting out seemingly like a semi-soft ballad, with John Gallagher showcasing his melodic low end at the start. . . but it doesn't stay soft for long.  Soon they shift into an almost 90s grunge-like groove, with neo-tube distortion riffs and clean arpegios on Mark's part, and meandering bass lines and masterful, gravelly signing punctuated by ascents into his high range on John's.  Simply a beautiful composition, bridged by a lyrically languishing solo, and then culminating with a plaintive sustain.

"Battle March/Tank Treads":  This is arguably the heaviest, even the most "brutal" (in fine Dethklok style) song not only on the entire album but even within Raven's whole repertoire.  It can go toe-to-toe with anything by (first three albums) Metallica, (recent) Accept, Black Sabbath, or Defenders of the Faith- era Judas Priest.  "The blood runs red/underneath my tank treads" is the tagline for the chorus, and the relentless guitar, bass, drums, and lyrics drive that theme home.

"Fight":  Reminiscent of Raven's songs of the 1980s, a straightforward drive-ahead riff-based song punctuated by fast tandem bass and guitar fills, that is until a grinding slowdown in the midpoint of the song, right after a bridge and solo that could be straight from the heyday of classic metal!