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Michael Angelo Batio, a name synonymous with jaw-dropping, mind-boggling, inhuman speed and gymnastics, and for years I dogged him for it, thinking he was all flash and nothing else. Then I purchased an instructional DVD with him as the teacher on it and was proved wrong by his intense knowledge of theory and his in-depth explanations of his writing and techniques all delivered in a matter-of-fact, down to earth, and witty manner. Then I went and scored this album and was simply blown away. There is no polite way to put it; MAB is THE God of shred-tastic. As a friend of mine who is not a guitar player put it after watching MAB do his thing on his double necked guitar on YouTube: "This guy's status as a human being has just been revoked--NO human being can do that!"
This is a covers album, mostly, and to my ear this is how covers ought to be done. MAB takes the songs and keeps the basic structure while adding and elaborating to the song in his own inimitable way, and it turns out as fresh and innovative as opposed to the usual boring interpretations most folks content themselves with when they cover songs by other artists.
Case in point; his "Tribute to Randy", a heartfelt medley of "Crazy Train" and "Mr. Crowley" which features an imaginative melody of his own on the verses of "Crazy Train" instead of just playing the vocal part verbatim on guitar, and his take on Randy Rhoads' fantastic solo sections on "Mr. Crowley" where he keeps the basic feel and adds to it in his own manner that makes it his own. Another excellent example of this is "Zeppelin Forever", a deft and imaginative medley of Led Zeppelin tunes where he makes them seem new and exciting again with his inspired playing--he even at one point in this medley plays a solo that suggests what Jimmy Page would've sounded like if he were a shredder! He somehow manages to evoke that loose, sloppy Page feel while shredding without copying or sounding unimaginative or just plain bad. That takes some skill and some doing and illustrates the depth of his ability. Of course, he opens the album with high octane shred mania with his take on Deep Purple's "Burn", one of my favorite songs of theirs, and the notes are a-flyin' on this one. As mentioned, even his takes on "Dream On" and "All Along The Watchtower" are exciting since he really takes them to another level of creativity--the latter in particular is almost unrecognizable as Jimi's composition.
The two originals on here are no exception to this rule. The title track and "Pray On, Prey" are both highly progressive and complex without seeming overly so (are you listening, Dream Theater?). it bears mentioning too that his rhythm section on this album are outstanding as well. They don't curl up and cower in the face of his onslaught of mad note spraying, they are right up there supporting him and even doing some slick bits of their own throughout. The clear, full production even makes certain you hear them all very well, a nice change from the usual approach of huge guitars and drums with the bass buried deep.
All in all, this album made me a convert to MAB's cause of creativity and serious shredding in the context of good music. I had him totally wrong and I regret not giving him a chance sooner. I do believe this album is only available through his website, so bop on over there and give him a shot, this will not disappoint unless you are a total Neanderthal Luddite who thinks mallcore/metalcore thunder thud is the height of creativity and anything else higher is "wanking".
"What the!?" you ask yourself, "this guy gave 80 to a shred album! Didn't he give 45 to another one?" Yes, I did. In my defense, Cacophony actually TRIED to be a metal band (and is, in fact, an actual band.) This guy is clearly not a 'metal band,' thus a different standard for this review.
M.A.B. is often considered the fastest damn shredder in the business. Put on ANY of these tracks and I swear to you that you will quake in your combat boots after hearing his six-stringed prowess. If there ever was a 'Shredinator,' it would be this guy. Listen to the solos (though they may just be a part of the song as much as a riff,) on "Burn" or "Tribute to Randy." He makes John Petrucci or Rusty Cooley look like kids who just picked up a guitar!
Most of the songs here are covers, and they are all fantastic. Even "All Along the Watchtower" and "Dream On," songs that aren't often shredder favorites. The songs he actually writes aren't half-bad either, the title track is somewhere between 'Catchy' and 'How did he do that?' Oh and the covers are played at 'too fast my ass,' Dark Angel salutes you M.A.B.!
The production highlights the guitars, of course. But you can hear the other instruments as well, the drums are solid and the bass too. Mark Tremonti, of Creed 'fame,' plays a solo that's worthwhile in "Burn" I expected something a lot worse for a mallcore guitarist. The worst part of this album is it's claim to fame: It's too damn FAST! You can hardly remember the jawdropping leadwork unless you listen very carefully for the umpteenth time.
Is it worthwhile? For some reason, yes! I listen to this more often than Speed Metal Symphony and I didn't pay a ridiculous price for it (about SG$12.50, that's Singapore dollars by the way.)
With all of the guitar magazines touting Michael Angelo Batio as being the fastest in the business, it’s easy to get sucked into the rather ridiculous nonsense going around that he lacks anything in musicality or has a swelled ego as a result. I actually had the opportunity to speak with him when he did a clinic at my former guitar store a few months back and the guy is about as down to earth as you can get, not to mention very passionate about putting an actual song underneath his technical wonders rather than simply jamming notes into small spaces of time for the mere sake of it. Tabloid journalism and muckraking is often performed due to personal insecurities on the part of the pursuant; in the metal realm should be reserved only for the most mentally inept in our ranks, and by no coincidence, always is.
“Hands without Shadows” definitely lives up to its name and features some extremely technical moments, but when compared with the outlandish things that he does live, Batio provides us with a somewhat reserved presentation. It is mostly a collection of instrumental cover songs and medleys/homages to those who influenced him as a player. In some cases like “Burn” and “Dream On” the changes are mostly in added ornamentation to the melodies and further elaboration of the solos with a combination of various advanced techniques.
By contrast, in other tracks like “Tribute to Randy” and “All Along the Watchtower” the songs themselves have had their arrangements tinkered with to the point that they sound extremely different. The Hendrix cover can only really be truly recognized when he quotes the original guitar solos, while the verses sound a bit more melancholy. The “Crazy Train” portion of the Randy Rhoades tribute has been elaborated melodically, replacing the verse melody with some technical acrobatics. Batio discussed his reasoning for doing this at the clinic, stating that the verse line doesn’t particularly work well on any other instrument than a voice with words, which I agree with as I’ve played the melody note for note on the guitar and can testify that when played on a guitar, even Mozart at age 11 would agree, it sounds extremely comical.
The original instrumental compositions on here are a fairly intricate mix of shred and prog. metal. The only artist that I’d say sounds similar to him in this capacity is Patrick Rondat. There is a good deal of odd time signature usage, modal interludes, and even some jazzy sounding chord harmonies. Batio maintains a good balance of thematic material to counteract the temptation to simply spew out scale runs, a trap that many often fall into during their 1st year as a qualified shredder (I was not immune to this either). The title song is slightly more memorable than “Pray on, Prey”, but both are definitely keepers if you have a taste for elaborate instrumental metal.
If I had to pick a favorite of the collection on here, however, the Zepplin medley takes the lead hands down. I’ve never heard such an ingenious collage of classic Zepplin songs arranged in such an elaborate way, each one flowing perfectly into the next. Through it all Batio is mindful to keep the musical quotations obvious so that he doesn’t lose the listener, and successfully combines 6 timeless classics into a 7 minute epic. My favorite moment is the transition out of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” into the solo of “Whole Lotta Love”, which is again touched up with some tastefully realized shredding genius.
If you take a liking to virtuoso rock/metal guitar music and have an appreciation for the bands whose music is featured on here, this is an essential buy. I am proud to say that I have a copy signed by the creator of it himself. And for those of you who can’t get past the notion that music has to have words and singing or else it isn’t worth listening to, I’ll leave you with my favorite Eddie Van Halen quote. “Some people think a song without words isn't a real song. Tell that to Beethoven and he'll kick your ass!”