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Sam's Sonic Freakout
by Sam Hatch

Riverside – Anno Domini High Definition special edition CD/DVD (InsideOut)

       Polish prog-rockers Riverside have returned with their heaviest slab of aluminum to date.  The five richly detailed songs on this new release don’t always aim to kick you in the solar plexus, but when they do you’ll be feeling it for days.  Not to say that this disc is all Sturm und Drang – the members of Riverside possess strong melodic abilities and often show their more Floydian side.  But for all of the sweet, sustain-laden guitar lines and harmony-drenched vocal layers you’ll also receive pounding drums and bass, and the occasional barking shout from vocalist Mariusz Duda.
The keyboard talents of Michał Łapaj add quite a lot to this sonic soundscape, and while there are some overtly ‘synth’ sounding moments, I delighted in the copious usage of really grimy sounding keys.  It’s something Opeth has been doing very well lately (with Per Wiberg handling ivory duties for them), and I’ve become convinced that a raunchy sounding keyboard line can form an awesome union with a distorted guitar riff.  The album also kicks off with a haunting piano melody, so there’s no lack of representation from the prettier side of life either.
Fans of Porcupine Tree and even Tool will find much to like here, and the Opeth comparison certainly comes to fruition during epic, genre-spanning tunes such as the three part Egoist Hedonist (which even features a midsection horn-driven freakout).  It’s an exciting disc to listen to, for it repeatedly lulls you into a false sense of security and relaxedness before beating you over the head with cooking riffs and killer pulsations from the rhythm section.  Much like this year’s Crack The Skye from Mastodon, this release will keep expanding and evolving in your brain with every listen.
The special edition release also comes packaged with a generous bonus DVD featuring a 41 minute live performance at Amsterdam’s Paradise.  The venue is beautiful, and certainly adds to the enjoyment of the video.  Sonically, it’s a very nice 2 channel stereo presentation that clearly presents all of the instruments.  However, I often found myself zeroing in on Mariusz’ kinetic bass guitar playing.  The widescreen video still looked slightly squeezed when fit on a 16:9 screen and there were a few jaggy picture artifacts (possibly from a PAL to NTSC conversion?), but the colors are so dense and potent that your senses will still be stunned into submission.  More, please!

Clutch – Strange Cousins From The West (Weathermaker)

Maryland’s finest continue to impress with this, their ninth official studio album.  Clutch have rocked down a long, winding road and have bucked the odds by maintaining (and even enhancing) their integrity since evolving from an early-90’s metal/hardcore band into a retro-rock blues juggernaut.  In particular, all of their work since 2003’s paradigm-shift release Blast Tyrant have been supernaturally satisfying.
I’d even venture so far as to suggest that this newest disc is a cut above their already stellar last release – 2007’s From Beale Street To Oblivion.  Fans of that album’s blues explosion hit Electric Worry will undoubtedly find delight in every track here.  Keyboardist Mick Schauer is now absent, so it’s back to the original lineup – Dan Maines on bass, Tim Sult on guitar, Jean-Paul Gaster on drums and wordsmith extraordinaire Neil Fallon (brother to Mary-Alice from TV’s Ace of Cakes) on guitar and vocals.
Neil’s amazing wit and talent for lyrical imagery is still one of the band’s biggest draws, and this disc seems to cull inspiration from all of their past thematic influences.  History (Abraham Lincoln) meets mythology (Minotaur) and science fiction monster conspiracies (the brilliantly titled Sleestak Lightning) with a dose of celebratory lauding of all things pure rock (50,000 Unstoppable Watts). 
Clutch is also the world’s best jam band, a fact I pray that Phish phans never uncover.  (No offense, Phishheads, but Clutch is just too awesome to get lumped into that crunchy miasma.)  They’re unlawfully groovy and always in the pocket.  Tim Sult can conjure mind-blowing licks like the best of Hogwarts’ wizards, and Gaster’s locomotive drumming (see the track Freakanomics) is so potent your mind’s eye can almost see his kick pedal leg bouncing in the air with every beat.
The production quality is top notch, handled mainly by J. Robbins - who had previously helmed the band’s release Robot Hive/Exodus.  One of the benefits of the group ditching the major labels is that their discs are no longer cooked to death (as was the case with 2001’s Atlantic release Pure Rock Fury) as part of the so-called “Loudness Wars”. 
The packaging is also lovingly crafted, though it’s a bit too complex a digipack for my taste.  It’s like a cardboard Chinese puzzle box with cutout windows and interlocking flaps, and I always feel like I’m going to tear it to shreds when I’m trying to retrieve the disc.  I’m sure I’d appreciate the hell out of the effort put into the design were it an LP package, but as a guy who does a lot of disc swapping while driving, I’d appreciate something a little more utilitarian. 
But who cares about the house when the soul within shines so brightly?  There’s not a bum note to be found on this disc – it’s the perfect companion to any long, summer’s drive.  Snag it as soon as possible and welcome these “strange cousins” into your life!  Testify!

Iron Maiden: Flight 666 documentary (Universal Blu-Ray)

Director Scot McFadyen and filmmaker/anthropologist Sam Dunn have become kings of the heavy metal documentary. Their influential Metal: A Headbanger's Journey and its equally fascinating follow-up Global Metal (to be reviewed next program guide) have delved deeply into the cultural and social ramifications of heavy music. One of their biggest allies during these productions was Iron Maiden manager Rod Smallwood, and by proxy, the band's lead vocalist since 1981 - Bruce Dickinson.
T          his friendship presented the filmmakers with a unique opportunity to follow the British band on the first leg of their whirlwind Somewhere Back In Time global tour, which would take the shredders to previously unrocked ends of the earth. The most fascinating element of this endeavor was that Dickinson himself would be flying the personalized 757 airliner known cheekily as Ed Force One (in reference to the band's skeletal mascot, Eddie).
Those who have seen Maiden in concert or on video can attest to the fact that Dickinson is an energetic madman on stage. The thought of riding high on superhuman amounts of sheer adrenaline for over two hours before flying your band from Australia to Japan may seem outright suicidal. Yet the footage on display seems to attest to the fact that Dickinson is a highly competent professional pilot.
Usually the band and their crew travel separately, but Ed Force One was retrofitted to store all of the band's equipment while comfortably seating their entire entourage. Being by and large a battalion of witty Brits, these jovial jokers take kindly to the cameras and a series of Monty Pythonesque adventures unfold. Each member of the band proper is also interviewed separately, giving an insight into the variety of characters that collectively add up to the hard-edged juggernaut that is Iron Maiden.
The band's history has been hashed out before, so McFadyen and Dunn opt to focus solely on the events at hand. Indeed, a tour this ambitious certainly yields enough interesting material to hold one's attention for the film's nearly two hour running time. Unlike Dunn's previous two documentaries, he also largely refrains from inserting himself into the picture as an affable narrator.
In one respect Flight 666 does make a great companion to those films, and that's the impact this band has on its fans across the world. When Iron Maiden comes to India and South America, there is a palpable effect on the populace. Colombia in particular provides a striking scenario wherein fans brave military brutality for just one chance to scream along to The Trooper. When the camera later lingers on a crying Colombian fan post-concert, clutching one of Nicko McBrain's drumsticks while falling prey to a deluge of emotion, it's powerful stuff.
The quality of the high-definition video footage varies, but the concert material consistently shines with a stunning amount of detail. The chrome hardware of McBrain's massive drum kit pops off the screen, and overhead shots of the shows often yield a shockingly crisp delineation of each and every member in the pulsating throng below. In a nice move, a video replication of the tour's setlist is also provided separately from the main event, featuring sixteen songs from sixteen different locations.
The sound quality is rich and full of dynamic range, jumping from the relatively quiet interview segments to the fiery, bombastic concert clips. Viewers can choose between a number of subtitle possibilities and sound options, including a stunning DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track produced by Maiden's main sound guru Kevin Shirley.  There is a surprising lack of extras on the disc, considering the wealth of goodies found on A Headbanger's Journey. In this case, the main feature and accompanying concert film are enough to satisfy the most frothing of metalheads.

Video viewed on a DIY 100” screen. Image generated by 1080p high definition BRD signal and/or upscaled standard-definition DVD signal fed to a Sony HD SXRD projector.
Sound was evaluated through a Rotel 5.1 Dolby Digital/DTS receiver feeding a speaker system comprising vintage Advent speakers and an SVS subwoofer.

 

Copyright©WWUH: September/October Program Guide, 2009

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