Friday, November 23, 2012

The Masquerade - Redemption (2012)

There has never been any doubt as to how I feel about cover bands. It has been my firm belief that cover bands, tribute bands, or any band playing any material other than their own are the bane of the music industry. But when Deimos crept into my periphery, my eyes were opened. They were a cover band at first, and took time to develop their own sound. The same goes for The Masquerade, another Italian band looking to move from one side of the coin to the other. Having played top 40 rock and metal covers for nearly a decade, the band has stepped out from the shadow of mediocrity to launch a career of their own talents. With a story based on the constant tag of war between self and society, "Redemption" is a hopeful first step into the light.

With an intro track featuring a fairly stunning use of pianos and ambient weather noises as background, the album immediately sets the bar high. There is something entwined into "Of Wax..." that has you holding your breathe at the moment you change over to "The Hero." A thunder of drums forces a deep exhale, and a breakneck pace keeps you gasping for more. You have a solid joining of drums and guitars, with the latter left a bit low in the mix at times. What stands out, however, is the vocal delivery. Walking the fine line between old school metal like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, singer Alfonso Zurlo has a style that is not easy to digest at first. When flanked by the backing voices of his guitarists, his voice is even more puzzling. This is not to say it lacks punch; but the off key harmonies don't echo the force of the instrumental. An extended, and impressive, drum solo caps off the track in a big way. The problems of the previous track are forgotten early on in "Bloodlust," a track that seems to have gotten the ship righted, more or less. The combination of dueling guitar riffs, pulsing bass lines and a backing synthesizer provides a stable foundation. It is this instrumental prowess that carries the track, even when the vocals are slightly awry. Those same oddly pitched vocal curves stick out far too often, both the lead and the backing to blame.

In the more down tempo songs, like "Only Dust," a weak vocal can be a true killer. In the early verse, as his voice stands with little accompaniment, Zurlo struggles. Thanks to a set of galloping guitars, performed by Davide Gallo and Fabrizio Abrate, there is a positive swing in energy as the track progresses. But with only so much help along the way, even a trading solo section falls a bit flat and lifeless. One of the common themes throughout is the use of keyboards and synthesizers as the glue that holds things together. Never is it more obvious than on "Hard Times," a song that relies heavily on those electronic notes to move the melody forward. With a mix that often leaves the guitars sounding slightly muffled, bassist Luca Cristofaro even fills a lead role in select portions. But here, his fast fingers can do only so much, and a catchy main riff is the only positive takeaway. A simple, yet wholly effective set of keys opens "Hell Inside Me," before being pushed backwards by a thumping kick drum. It could never be said that drummer Matteo Maselli is bored behind his kit, as he pounds out track after track of blistering rolls and booming fills. His heavy handed approach keeps the tracks moving at a steady pace, and even adds a much needed layer of originality. With the choir vocals outperforming the lead, things have gone slightly pear shaped.

The longest and most ambitious track, "7 Deadly Sins," may also be the most successful. Divided into several different sections, there is a fair amount of contrast to the instrumental here. In one span, you have softly played clean guitars, followed by a high speed, almost power metal, set of guitar work. Each section is well played on its own, but actually finds a good sense of flow throughout the track. The same cannot be said, however, for the performance of Zurlo, which is uneven and lacking. His voice never gets to the same level of expertise as his bandmates. His best showing comes on "Behind The Mask," where he takes a more subdued delivery option, instead of belting out his parts at a staggering level. The song, on the whole, is one of the more simplistic pieces on the album, relying on basic riffs to flesh out a short four minutes. A vocal savior arrives on "Lady (D)Evil," as a daring female voice gives you a view of how the band would function under different circumstances. On her own, she commands the microphone, allowing voice to become one with the instrumental beneath. With Zurlo, she elevates his voice, while also highlighting his shortcomings. With keyboards doing a bulk of the heavy lifting, the track is a step away from a symphonic duet, including a beautiful outro. The keys that end here, also begin the closing track, the lightly played but perfectly mixed "...And Chronicles."

Writing music and performing music written by others are two entirely different animals. being able to do one, does not guarantee success at the other. For The Masquerade, a decade as a cover band hasn't rendered them incapable of writing a masterpiece of their own, but it hasn't helped. There are a lot of bright spots scattered throughout these ten songs, but they aren't nearly as frequent as they need to be. When your three best songs are the intro, outro, and a piece with a guest vocalist, there is a lot of work left to do. While the instrumental and production issues are easily fixed, the most difficult problem to address will be that of the sub par vocals. With a story and structure that is ambitious and hopeful, you need a voice at the mic that can accentuate both. Perhaps they should have waited to call their second album "Redemption."


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