The metal world is a world saturated with pretty mediocre and often stereotypical artwork. Graphic satanic imagery, violent imagery, militaristic imagery, fantastical imagery, you get the point. Once you’ve seen enough album covers, you know how rare it is to find something that truly surprises or impresses you. This year seems to have had a really nice mix of fresh, interesting takes on album art as well as wonderfully executed standard-issue album art. This is not to say, however, that 2011 didn’t have its fair share of stinkers. In fact, some of the worst metal album art to come out of the last decade very well may have been this year. We’re going to count down the best and worst of the lot.
Metal is one of those genres that sends only a few bands to towering fame and worldwide notoriety. Dream Theater is one of them. While the band occupies more of the progressive side of the genre, they do so with energy and originality. Two existing members attended Berklee College of Music and one went to Julliard. Needless to say, these guys have chops. The Julliard alum is none other than versatile keyboard player Jordan Rudess. His intricate, tasteful and passionate performances not only add to Dream Theater’s arrangements, but he also pursues his own solo endeavors. He’s a prominate solo keyboard player who has been featured in Keyboard magazine, he’s developed a relationship with numerous tech companies (even designing some gear) and is also a strong advocate of music education. Check out our Q&A with Rudess to hear his take on all of his projects.
OS: You played Summer Sonic this year. How long had it been since you played a major festival and what are you looking forward to most about this one?
JR: We’d never played Summer Sonic. I get the feeling that it’s very different than anything else. We played at a lot of festivals this summer. We did some very big ones with Iron Maiden which were very fun. We played a festival in Ottowa for like 70,000 people. It was ridiculous. We played something in Montreal and Toronto. We had some great big festival shows.
OS: Dream Theater songs are usually quite complex and technical. What is the rehearsal/arrangement process like?
JR: When Dream Theater gets ready to record an album, we record in a studio where we’re able to set up all of our gear in a comfortable amount of space. It’s usually pretty big because there are a lot of drums and a lot of gear. We just like to be in the room and hash things out all together.We’ll bring in like seeds of ideas. There are three composers in the group: Myself, Petrucci and Portnoy. Together, we just make it happen. A lot of the notes and harmony are things that John and I will throw into the soup. Mike’s talent is in the architectural realm. He’s able to see how all these wild and crazy ideas can go together in an ingenious kind of way. It’s a really cool system.
I’ll throw in an idea, maybe 4 or 8 measures or something, and then we’ll start playing it. Generally it’ll lead to the next idea. Mike will say What if we put this riff behind it and play for another 8 bars while I turn around the rhythm. Rarely does anybody come up with something that’s a full song.
JR: I’m not a big game player, but I think it’s really cool that the game thing is what it is in today’s world. First of all, it’s a great avenue for a band like Dream Theater to get out there. When commercial radio has changed so much, we’re looking for new opportunities to get our music heard and enjoyed. From that point of view, it’s really cool. In the old days, you could rely on people buying things just to listen to. Now, they have this way to play along and become the guitarist, drummer or even keyboardist.
It’s not something we think about when writing music at all. Maybe we’re old school, but we just want to make good music. I do think it’s pretty cool though. I know we all enjoy the idea that our songs are being used in those games.
OS:Dream Theater toured with Iron Maiden earlier this year. What was it like being on the road with these guys?
JR: Well it was a really great tour, and great for Dream Theater to be on that tour. Although we’re popular in North America, it’s not our strongest market. This was an opportunity to go and play for really huge crowds. Iron Maiden still sells tons of tickets. In the summer when the touring business was down altogether, Dream Theater did amazingly well with Iron Maiden on the road. Every night was pretty much sold out.
OS: Yeah you guys are definitely a notable metal band too, but a different branch than Iron Maiden. Did you have a similar response?
JR: The response was really great. At times, you wouldn’t even know that it was necessarily an Iron Maiden crowd. It’s not a typical opening act scenario. It was cool. I think at times, we just had a lot of fans in the audience, but even if they were mostly Iron Maiden fans, it seemed they really liked Dream Theater. We played some of our most intense music, and were trying to deliver the goods in a small amount of time. So that’s what we did. It went well, and the reaction was strong.
OS: Can you speak a little bit about the MorphWiz app that you developed for iPad and iPhone?
JR: My new app is called MorphWiz. It’s an app for the i-OS- iPhone, iPad, iPod touch. My whole concept in creating it was to try and coordinate the worlds of audio and visual as one. It’s based on the foundation of what I call a vertical grid, kind of like what I do with the continuum. You can play any scale, any amount of octaves on the screen, and each note is represented by a vertical line. So, you can get a lot of expression. For instance, you can start at the bottom of the line with virtually no volume, you can increase the amplitude by moving up the line. In that same way, you can control other parameters as well. Pitch is most often left to right. So you can have this really expressive interface.
The other thing that makes it cool is that it uses a kind of pitch intelligence that I’ve kind of developed over the years (starting by working with Liphol hawkin), which is a pitch-rounding system. Let’s say you have a screen with a couple of different octaves, and you slide your finger on the screen, you get a smooth slide of notes. This system enables you to correct the pitch when you first touch the screen to the right note even if you’re left or right of it. This can even happen once you stop your finger after the slide. This makes some very expressive styles of playing.
People think of the iPad or iPod as a fun toy, or a cheaper type of instrument. MorphWiz, I feel, is setting the foundation for the future of what we think of as electronic instruments. This whole idea of a touch screen as a means for new types of expression is really
JR: Yeah I think that’s definitely part of it. I come from a pretty formal education. I went to Julliard, I was there from the age of 9 until 19. It was a very unusual path. I was going to be a classical pianist. Then when I was 16-17, I started to really discover other choices. The classical thing wasn’t really my interest. I was starting to get into synthesizers, but I didn’t know how to apply my interests other than having fun. At some point I was like Well, this has been an unusual path, so I should let people see where I’m coming from. There’s a bit of responsibility to share, because I wasn’t very guided in my transition from classical to the more synthesizer stuff. There wasn’t like a Berklee program like there is now. I feel like if there’s some way I can share what I learned with other people then I’ll do that.
OS: You have a huge presence in the gear community. Did this just occur naturally from all of your projects, or were these partnerships always important for you to include?
JR: I’m really interested in technology. When I left Julliard and I got involved with the Moog synth, it all started there. Now I’m constantly looking for ways to push the boundaries with music and visuals. Some people were like well why are you playing the iPhone, it can’t possibly be ˜real’. I knew the second I saw the iPhone, there were going to be some really groundbreaking ideas to be fleshed out on the iPhone. I’m interested and I think there are some important things going on in that world. So, it leads me to a lot of gadgets, and things that make sounds.
The Microboards thing is an extension of what’s going on with me. I have a G3 Disc Publisher at home. I can burn like 50 CD’s at a time and they’re all really well-printed. Just like I have a keyboard now that can make any sound you can imagine. I’m working on a concerto now and I’m trying to finish that. The relationship started a long time ago In this case, we needed a solution when Dream Theater was in the studio to make CD’s for everyone during rehearsal. Recently, I got in touch with Aaron Pratt, and asked what they had to help me get the job done. So that’s when the G3 came into play.
OS: Cool. So you’re working on a concerto right now?
JR: Yeah, in November I’m heading off to Venezuela to premier my new concerto. It’s not done yet, but it will be for keyboard and orchestra. That’s like the main thing on my plate right now. My general plan is to make a piece of substantial length, and it should be interesting.
If you missed the Iron Maiden tour or Dream Theaters’ Japanese dates, stay tuned for Rudess’ keyboard concerto as well as an announcement for some 2011 Dream Theater dates.
If a person is to consider themselves a metalhead, they had best know the roots”the basics. Be aware of all subgenres, who dominates them and know the albums that helped shape that subgenre. For the next few weeks, I’ll be schooling you on some essential metal albums from metal’s biggest subgenres; making sure you know the biggest and the best in the metal world while giving you some essential albums to add to your metal collection.
This week’s topic seeks to stretch the genre boundaries of metal, and, quite literally, the length of songs. I’m referring to progressive metal.
‘Tis the season to be… metal! Unlike many genres of music, winter is a popular touring season for metal bands. This year it seems some of the biggest and most highly- regarded acts are teaming up for mammoth tours. From death metal to progressive metal, there’s something for everyone. If you’re looking to see some metal veterans, there’s some of that. If you’re looking to see some of the metal rookies looking to make waves, there’s lots of that too. Exodus, Scale the Summit, Revocation, Nile, Between the Buried and Me and many more are all hitting the road!
Everyone knows that summertime is festival season, and whenever people think of music festivals, they think of events like SXSW and Bonnaroo. Unless they are metalheads. For hardcore rockers, popular summer festivals include Wacken and Hellfest. But, most of the time when music journalists or bloggers write about the summer touring and festival season, metal does not get its due. Sure, metal bands are in on some of these festivals, like Bonnaroo, but they certainly are not the focal point of the events. So, here is a nice summer festival overview for all you metal junkies out there:
Wacken Open Air – Wacken, Germany
Arguably the most famous and premier event in the history of metal festivals, this past Wacken Open Air celebrated its 20th birthday. Mí¶torhead reportedly put on one of the best shows in recent memory, and all the other old school metal rockers followed suit. Among these great performances were the band formerly known as Black Sabbath (Heaven & Hell) as well as Saxon. Beyond the seasoned veteran bands, word is that doom metal troop Cathedral really won the crowd over (unsurprising, since the band is led by ex-Napalm Death vocalist Lee Dorrian).
Hellfest Open Air – Clisson, France
The second-most famous metal festival on the globe, Hellfest shared only a couple acts with Wacken this year”notably Heaven & Hell who again wowed the crowd. The fest’s the buzz bands seemed to be Brutal Truth and the loudest band on Earth Manowar, with Manowar having a slight edge (despite reports that Brutal Truth could be heard over Manowar’s set at times). Strangely, little was said about hometown giants Gojira, though there were sparse mentions of a solid set.
Bloodstock Open Air – Catton, UK
Rounding out the big three for metal festivals, this year’s Bloodstock was fodder for great stories. None more awesome than the hilarious/horrible bottling of Cradle of Filth in which the band stopped their set and left the stage without finishing the set. Blind Guardian, Carcass, Amon Amarth and the thrash bands garnered the most props for absolutely bringing it on stage.
MetalCamp – Tolmin, Slovenia
As usual, the bands who headlined this festival are the same bands that headlined the other big festivals. That’s just the way these things work. After scouring the ˜net for any opinions or reports of the festival, I only came to the conclusion that there was no real standout performances, though people were largely unenthusiastic about the lineup as a whole (Mind-boggling, really, since Amon Amarth, Blind Guardian, Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon and more were on the bill). The disappointment might have been due to the lack of great underground bands (beyond the huge names), as well as the completely unknown acts from the second stage”except Warbringer, who played before a band with only 1,000 MySpace friends. For shame.
Download Festival – Donington Park, UK
Download Festival, the least metal of all the summer metal festivals, was filled with the nu metal acts of yesteryear and all the things the kids dig today. So there was a huge variety of musical styles on this bill. No band got as much credit as Faith No More, who put on a performance referred to as brilliant by most attendees. Mí¶tley Crüe, Slipknot and Steel Panther also received favorable reviews. On the opposite side of things, a lot of festival goers hated Marilyn Manson, Limp Bizkit, Attack! Attack!, Pendulum and Parkway Drive. Unsurprisingly there was little said about the more extreme bands there like Suicide Silence, Meshuggah and God Forbid”the bill did not exactly cater to those fans. What is surprising is that I have found nothing about Opeth and Dream Theater’s sets.
In case you did not make it out to any festivals this summer, or just want to know what is coming up for metal festivals in the near future, here are two of the bigger events on the list:
New England Deathfest – Providence, RI
While not the biggest metal festival, New England Deathfest is having some of the most legendary Death Metal bands headline this year: Neuraxis, Cephalic Carnage and Quo Vadis. Also on the bill is Revocation, touted by many as the next big thing in metal and recently signed to Relapse Records. If you’re in the New England area, $50 for this weekend filled with death is well worth it.
Ilha Do Ermal Festival – Viera do Hinho, Portugal
Because I don’t speak Portuguese, it is hard to say much about this festival other than the fact that Blind Guardian is headlining it, which is almost enough reason to go regardless of who else is playing. The fact that Sepultura, Obituary, Firewind, Textures and Hatesphere are also on the bill certainly does not hurt. At 60â‚¬ ($85.35), that is a great price for three days of pure metal goodness.
Twenty years is a long time. Two whole decades. Many things can change in that amount of time, but few styles of music went through as many changes as metal.
1989 was the tipping point that steered metal into the state we know it now. The thankful decline of the hair metal plague was in full-effect, death metal was on the rise and thrash metal was still going strong. This was the year of the infamous Jethro Tull upset over Metallica for the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental in the first ever Heavy Metal Grammy (much to the dismay of the metal community and rightfully so”Jethro Tull is not even close to metal). Tipper Gore and her PMRC was bringing the hammer down on metal with their censorship threats, and Guns N’ Roses had taken over the mainstream metal territory. Metal was under fire from all angles. For the greater good of metal, however, all of these things were ultimately great. The core die hard metal community decided they had enough, and were going to take a stand by pushing metal styles to the extreme.
Dream Theater, Stratovarius and Obituary are the most notable bands who released debut albums in 1989, all of which saw moderate success, and who later came to shape their genres for the next two decades. 1989 also saw the formation of many new bands, such as Dark Tranquillity and Cannibal Corpse, who helped shape the metal world over the last twenty years. Even with the huge successes these bands saw in the 90’s, they were still not able to overcome the hip hop and grunge onslaught throughout the decade and break into the mainstream ” unless you were Anthrax and did a collaboration with Public Enemy (which ultimately led to the rap metal fiasco of the late 90’s). I’m not talking about the popular bastardized offshoots of metal (e.g. Limp Bizkit, Nine Inch Nails, Korn, Disturbed, Deftones, etc.) that developed in the 90’s. I’m talking the real metal of the 90’s”Blind Guardian, At The Gates, In Flames, Symphony X, Suffocation”none of these bands got as much mainstream exposure in the 90’s as they deserved. Instead, the less abrasive grunge style took over. The mainstream was tired of the aggression-fueled style that metal brought and grunge stepped up to the plate, switching the anger for angst which hit home for the flannel-clad teenagers of the 90s.
Ultimately, metal being a subterranean music style throughout the 90’s was for the betterment of all metal genres. Everyone saw what happened in the 80’s when metal broke into the mainstream (yes, hair metal). The same thing happens to most genres of music”evolution happens when the genre is not in the spotlight (which means grunge is directly responsible for the black sheep that is Nickleback). Without the 90’s era of metal, we could still have things like the horrid pop-punk and boy bands of the early 2000’s (we can actually thank hip hop for helping to rid of that nuisance). Slowly but surely, metal is making its way back into the mainstream. There are 14 metal albums in the Billboard Top 200 as I write this, one of which debuted at #6” Black Clouds & Silver Linings by our progressive pals Dream Theater. Metal is stronger than ever, and looks as though it is still on the rise. Lookout, mainstream media, we are storming your beaches, and about to take over your cities. Yes, those ones that were built on rock and roll.
New to OurStage this year, Kris Norris is a fifteen-year veteran in the metal community. He floated around from obscure metal band to obscure metal band until he landed with Darkest Hour in 2001”his first successful gig. Recently he parted ways with the band to pursue a solo project (The Kris Norris Projekt) and production ventures as well as make instructional videos for JamPlay. Back in May he landed among the Top 10 in the OurStage metal channel. We recently caught up with Kris to ask him a few questions. Here’s what we got:
JM: You have worked on a few different projects in your career as a guitarist, which was your favorite?
KN: Probably the Undoing Ruin CD with Darkest Hour. Having Devin Townsend as producer really expanded my guitar playing and brought me to a new level.
JM: How about at an engineer/producer?
KN: I really haven’t done too many at this point, but so far doing the Kris Norris Projekt getting to produce myself was an interesting and fun experience.
JM: Are you working on anything big in the studio these days, either as a producer or a musician?
KN: Not really. Doing my full time job and doing side work for James Murphy at his studio doing drum editing work. Not many bands have come to ask me to produce their stuff yet, but I think that’s because I have yet to prove myself as a producer.
JM: If you could have a solo face-off with any guitarist” alive or dead”who would it be?
KN: John Petrucci definitely. I know he’d kill me but it would be such an honor to lose to my idol.
JM: Who is your favorite artist/band these days?
KN: My favorite band these days is still and always will be Dream Theater” they never cease to excite me in their records.
JM: What’s the strangest fan interaction you have ever had?
KN: People getting the same tattoos that I have then showing them off to me. Always strange.
JM: If you were forced to work under a pseudonym, what would you choose for a name?
KN: I actually have one and it’s Kaiser Rune [laughs].
JM: What was the most influential album for you while your music taste blossomed?
KN: Probably Lunar Strain by In Flames.
JM: Any good, young, bands you think we should keep an eye on?
KN: There’s a band from [New] Jersey called Mutiny Within. Just awesome melodic power-metal-ish stuff.
JM: How about some advice for young, aspiring guitarists?
KN: It’s so cliché but never give up. In my teens I worked at Wendy’s with the drummer from Darkest Hour in our early teens. Who would have ever thought that we would tour all over the entire world later on playing music together?
JM: If you could only eat and drink one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
KN: Hmmm… Well porterhouse steak to be exact for food and I know I couldn’t live on it- but Vanilla Coke. Always stocked in my refrigerator!
As the perfect accompaniment to this feature, check out the playlist of Kris’ best songs here on OurStage, as well as a few other face-melters from similar artists.