Saturday, 5 April 2014

Diamond Plate "Generation Why" Review

...Honestly, I don't know where to start with this album. I know it's going to be odd that THIS is the album which has me questioning whether I can review it (and Overexposed wasn't), as it's not as bad as some of the stuff I've listened to in my life, but there's only so many times that you can say variants of "This is boring" before you start sounding like a broken record. And there's only so many times you can make the same complaints again and again before even you are sick of hearing them. Both of those issues are in abundance when I try to find the words to sum up this album. It really isn't an unlistenable album (indeed, it has quite a few really good moments to it), but it's mostly a mediocre sea of boredom and it keeps sinking itself for the same reasons.

*Sigh* OK, let me back up a bit.

Diamond Plate are a thrash metal band from Illinois in Chicago that has been around since 2004 (which is all the more impressive when you learn that every single member of the band was in high school at the time: indeed, most of the members of the band appear to be in their early 20's now, according to my quick internet search about the members). They released their first EP, Mountains Of Madness, in January 2008 and, in April, appeared on a split with Swedish thrashers Oppression (coincidently, also Oppression's last release). In mid-2009 (my research fails me on the exact release date), the band followed this up with their second EP, Relativity, which included three re-recorded songs from their first EP and a new song. Apparently, these two EPs and the split must have caused some heads to turn to pay attention to them, for they would release their debut album on the 9th of August in the US (the UK and Europe would have to wait until the 29th of August). It got a HUGE amount of hype among metal critics, with a lot of reviews indicating it was one of the best retro-thrash albums to come out in a good while.

Well...I don't get the hype. At all.

Before I get to looking at the album itself, I have to say that the cover artwork is rather neat. Yeah, it's obviously a photo, so calling it "artwork" might be stretching the word a bit, but I just think it's a neat idea and, well, it works.

OK, let me bring up my big issues with this album now. I know I'm going to sound like some thrash purist with this, but these just drag the album for me so much that I can't really ignore them.
  1. The vocals. Dear god, the vocals...OK, they're not as bad as I'm making them out to be (they certainly aren't as bad as those of Kamelot's first vocalist, Mark Vanderbilt), but they have no grit to them and are far too high to really suit thrash metal. Thrash metal isn't a genre that is friendly to vocalists who have a vocal range of tenor (or soprano, for the ladies...yes, there are female vocalists in the thrash metal scene!), you generally need to have a lower voice to get the grit necessary to be a great thrash vocalist. About the only real exception to this rule that springs to mind is Steve Souza, and I'd still say he can grate on your ears. This guy, however, sounds like he heard Paul Baloff on Bonded By Blood and thought "Hey, I can do that!" and proceeded to do it...but without actually taking the time to look for the little details that made Baloff the vocalist he was. The end result is best summed up as a hardcore yell, but with none of the power needed to make them actually sound good and none of the grit that is needed to potentially make them work in this band. Even considering the guy would have been 18 when this album was recorded, he just flat out doesn't stand up as a strong enough vocalist for this band. While they DID get someone new for their second album, they unfortunately went for a guy who sounds fairly similar to this guy, which only made the fact that their second album was worse than this one more glaringly obvious. I think they need to find a guy with a voice a bit more like Chuck Billy of Testament if they want to find a great person for the vocal position. If they want to stick with a higher voice, then get someone like Steve Souza. Just don't get another guy who thinks he's Paul Baloff, OK?
  2. The production. Now, normally, I don't have a problem with modern production (it's not the 80's, people, so stop asking bands to go for crappy 80's production on their albums today, because it ain't gonna happen!), but this production is just...ugh. From a purely technical standpoint, it's completely fine, but it's just got no edge to it, which is what more aggressive styles of music really need to work properly. You can get a rather gritty sound with modern production (as much as some people will claim otherwise), but this just isn't it. If you want to hear a rather gritty (if loud) production that suits thrash metal, go check out Death Angel's album The Dream Calls For Blood. Then listen to this. You'll see what I'm talking about very quickly. Interestingly, my same complaint for this album also applies (albeit to a lesser extent than here) to Death Angel's album Relentless Retribution, but I'm getting sidetracked. Point is, the production on this album does the music no favours.
But these shouldn't be enough for me to get annoyed at this album, right? After all, some bands can release amazing albums with both of those problems and I can still like them, so how can this be the album that has me going "Where do I go from here?"

Well...the music just isn't up to scratch, a lot of the time. It's not bad, but, most of the time, I feel like I'm politely waiting for the band to impress me (after all, if you can't impress a listener on your debut album, chances are they won't bother with you in the future, unless line up issues bring in another musician that the listener really enjoys...) and they're not living up on their side of the bargain. Now, to be fair to the guys, they are young and, as such, have the potential to go on to become brilliant musicians in their own right. But I'm not going to go "Well, it's a bad album, but they're young guys, so I'll give them a pass" just to be nice. When you make a professionally released album, you have to be willing to accept that, at the end of the day, it's not how old the musicians are that is being judged (although how old the musicians are can affect how you perceive certain things), but the music itself. And, if the music isn't up to scratch, then playing nice just because the performers are young and probably don't know better isn't going to help them to improve. Sometimes, the kindest thing you can do at that point is to say "This isn't a brilliant album". And, bear in mind, these guys are actually slightly older than I am (I'm 21 later this year), so this isn't a grumpy old man going "You young 'uns don't know how to thrash. Why, back in my day, we played thrash from the soul because it was all we knew what to do" or some kind of crap like that: this is a guy who understands that they've made a brilliant achievement just releasing this album at their age, but still thinks that words need to be said to help them to improve in the future, because I recognise that these guys have the talent to succeed, but not the songwriting skills to bring them to the heights they should be able to reach with that talent.

First, let me cover the good stuff on here, because I'd be lying if I were to say that there's no good songs on here. The intro is rather unsettling, if bringing to mind modern Megadeth a bit too much for my liking (a personal complaint I have is dialogue in music unless it's part of a musical or a rock opera a la Operation: Mindcrime, although I can let it slide this time, considering it's not an actual song). "Generation Why" is really, REALLY good, for all of my complaints. I'm faintly reminded of Testament, with a bit of Exodus and Slayer influence thrown in for flavour. The lyrics aren't brilliant, but I've heard far worse lyrics on songs that I really enjoy, so I can't complain too much.

Then, near the end of the album, we get to "At The Mountains Of Madness". Now, I've heard the version that was on their Relativity EP and, I have to say, I prefer the EP version over the album version: it was faster and nicely captured the nearly out of control speed that you really need to do in thrash if you don't want to groove. The album version is slowed down by more than a bit (it's about half a minute longer than the EP version, which is a noticeable lengthening when you consider that the EP version was JUST under four minutes long!), but the point of the song itself still stands fairly well. I just wish that they could have just done the song more like the EP version, as it would have sounded brilliant on the album in that version. It's still a highlight on the album, but, comparing it to the EP version, it just feels...tame, if you pardon me returning to sounding like a thrash purist for a second.

The rest of the album, though...I think saying it's mostly a descent into mediocrity wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration. Now, thrash is not one of my favourite styles of metal out there (most of the time, I tend to find that most bands are so focused on writing fast music that they forget to actually give you a reason to listen to it beyond the speed...), but I've always been able to enjoy listening to thrash metal without too many complaints. This album, though, leaves me bored very quickly, even when I put it on for background listening. Case of point, I've sat through this album goodness knows how many times since I got it and I cannot remember any other songs from the album, no matter how hard I try! That's not a good sign, guys: I don't listen to albums to help me get to sleep, I listen to them because I want to enjoy the music on it! I can remember stuff from Overexposed, despite my rating for the album, than I can from this album. Maybe I'm being harsh, but, if you think writing a song without some degree of hook makes you a "trve" metal warrior, then you're only going to end up writing a song that will result in most people will be hitting the skip button when it starts, no matter how well written it is!

So, now I've got all of that out of my system, is there anything really GOOD about this album? Well...yes and no. The guitar work is pretty good (indeed, the lead guitarist (Konrad Kupiec) might want to try to have a word or two with Joe Satriani if he can, as I reckon he might be able to learn much from the guy and might even become the next Alex Skolnick, if he is willing to put the work into it...although I highly doubt the guy is going to form a jazz trio!) and the drumming is pretty impressive. I've already mentioned my issues with the vocals, so I'll not bore you with that again, but the same guy also plays bass on this album. He doesn't really do anything interesting, though, so don't worry about it too much. I guess the production (if you don't have the same complaint I do regarding how little bite it has) is perfectly fine, if still suffering from the same issues I usually bring up whenever I write a review (although the bass complaint can be forgiven this time: he's not really doing anything that is going to have most bassists suddenly proclaiming him to be the next Cliff Burton or anything like that, he just spends a lot of his time following the guitars). However, having talent doesn't mean shit if you can't write a song that demonstrates this talent within a song that you actually want to listen to. As an example, Journey's lead guitarist (Neal Schon) is a guitar virtuoso, but he doesn't let his amazing guitar skills detract from the band's music: if anything, he usually dials it down to suit the band's music, which I think is a better way to show how skilling a musician you are. If you can play a wide variety of styles of music without dominating the proceedings at any time, then it says far more to me than being able to play guitar solos that are over 40 minutes long which are amazing from a technical level, but horribly dull to actually listen to.

So, there's certainly talent in this band, but it's being wasted by unimpressive songwriting and poor vocals. I'd love to be able to say that the guys got better with their second album, but, unfortunately, word of mouth is that they actually have gotten WORSE since then. While I can't comment on this from first hand experience, I can tell you that I heard a single from the album recently and was bored stiff before it was even halfway through (and this wasn't an epic length track, mind you...). So yeah...guys, get a grip on your songwriting for your third album, get a stronger vocalist (and ideally one with a lower voice) and, for the love of God, try to get a producer who doesn't produce metal albums without any bite to them!

Final Rating: 4 Out Of 10

With a lot of dull material and several issues that hamper any of the success that the band could have built up, only check this out if you are VERY good at ignoring poor vocals and don't mind sitting through a lot of mediocre thrash metal in the hopes of finding a few gems that I may have missed.

Personal Favourite Tracks: "Generation Why" and "At The Mountains Of Madness"

(As a quick note for those who are familiar with the album and are curious as to what rating I would have given the album if the issues that are not restricted to the songwriting were sorted, I honestly would have said that, had they had a more suitable vocalist for their music and a production that was more suitable for more extreme styles of metal, I would have considered it a 6 out of 10. I'm not saying it's a bad album, in spite of my ratings and review indicating otherwise, I just think the band aren't strong enough songwriters to really get beyond being merely "OK" and, with the other issues on top of it, the album descends to becoming an album that I just can't recommend. Die hard thrashers who can ignore the issues I mentioned, please treat this as a 6 out of 10, not the 4 out of 10 that I've officially given it.)

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