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(Above: Rodrigo y Gabriela bring their main set at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, Mo., to a joyous end with “Humana.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

About a third of the way through her set on Friday night, Gabriela Quintero explained her pact with the Uptown Theater crowd. She and Rodrigo Sanchez promised to play only acoustic guitars if the audience let the pair play whatever they wanted.

The audience in the crowded theater responded enthusiastically to almost everything thrown at it in the 100-minute set. The rapt attention the acoustic instrumental music commanded spoke to the pair’s skill and ingenuity.

The music was a mixture of Mexican, Irish, African, metal and folk, leading to another of Quintero’s maxims: They don’t label their music because then they’d be trapped playing to that label. With no classification, they can — and do — play anything.

Rodrigo y Gabriela started performing together in their native Mexico in the late ’90s. By the new millennium, the pair had relocated to Dublin and caught the eye of Damien Rice and David Gray. Their first album came out in 2002. In the dozen years since, they have released an album almost yearly, alternating studio material with live albums.

rygFriday’s performance touched on many of those albums and also previewed material slated for release next year. With no new album since 2012’s “Area 52,” Sanchez admitted there wasn’t really a reason for the duo to be touring. They just wanted to play.

While both guitarists are virtuosos, Quintero displayed an especially strong right hand. Viciously strumming without a pick, she summoned a plethora of textures and rhythms. Often treating her guitar like a percussive instrument, she was easily able to generate as much kick as a bass drum. Quintero’s skill with a wah pedal also added to her arsenal.

Against this backdrop, Sanchez showed amazing dexterity with his left hand, lacing songs with intricate riffs and solos. Sanchez also wasn’t shy about showing off his metal roots. He tossed Metallica riffs between songs a few times, and threw in some Megadeth for good measure. A full cover of Metallica’s “Orion” showed why the pair have earned the respect of their metal heroes. A right-turn cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” generated the biggest applause of the night.

The sound was immaculate. Both instruments were close mic’d, adding the squeak of fingers on the fretboards and sound of Sanchez’s pick hitting the strings to the mix. When inattentive fans started talking, the rest of the audience had no qualms about shutting them up.

Although their songs have no words, Sanchez and Quintero had no trouble keeping the crowd involved. At one point Sanchez had a three-part clap circulating around the theater. The two’s infectious energy — Quintero relished jumping around the stage — kept fans on their feet for most of the last half of the set.

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(Above: Metallica perform with Ray Davies at the 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert in New York City.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Every great song usually inspires about a dozen covers. Most of these are pedestrian and instantly forgotten. The few that transcend the original can be troublesome for the original artist. Should they mimic the new, more popular version or maintain the original vision? Bob Dylan has turned his nightly performances of “All Along the Watchtower” into a sort-of tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Trent Reznor, however, continues to perform “Hurt” as he originally intended, ignoring Johnny Cash’s transcendent interpretation.

Ray Davies wrote “You Really Got Me” in 1964 on an upright piano. The initial sketches suggest a loping bluesy number somewhere between Gerry Mulligan and Big Bill Broonzy, two of Davies’ biggest inspirations at the time.

Davies’ brother Dave had different ideas. Latching onto the riff, and drawing on “Wild Thing” and “Tequilla,” he drove the song through his distorted guitar. The song was born anew, and when Ray Davies heard the new arrangement he knew that’s how his number was supposed to be played.

Unfortunately, the Kinks had already taken the first arrangement into the studio. It was that version that Pye, their label, intended to release as the band’s third single. The Kinks and producer Shel Talmy successfully lobbied for another session to re-record the number with the newfound grit and rawness. The result was the band’s first No. 1 hit in their native England, thereby launching their career.

The Kinks’ next single was essentially a re-write of “You Really Got Me.” Despite the similar success of “All Day and All of the Night,” Ray Davies abandoned that style of writing for the most part for more lilting fare like “Tired of Waiting for You” and “Sunny Afternoon.”

Davies and the Kinks may have moved on, but the rest of the world was just catching up. “You Really Got Me” inspired the signature grimy riff of “Satisfaction,” the feel of “Wild Thing,” and all of “I Can’t Explain.” Heavily distorted guitars became a staple in the burgeoning psychedelic rock scene and, a decade later, the backbone of punk.

In the heart of punk movement, Los Angeles party band Van Halen decided to release their version of “You Really Got Me” as their debut single. Although the song only rose to No. 36 on the U.S. charts, it was tremendously popular, becoming a concert staple throughout the band’s career (and numerous line-ups).

For the most part, Van Halen’s 1978 arrangement of “You Really Got Me” stayed true to the Kinks version. The biggest difference was Eddie Van Halen’s fretboard pyrotechnics. This transformed the song from a proto-punk jam into a guitar hero workout. Matching Van Halen’s instrumental energy was frontman David Lee Roth, whose grunting and moaning punctuated an already-strong come-on.

In 1980, “You Really Got Me” was one of the last cuts on the Kinks live album “One From the Road.” The song had already been released in live format before, on 1968’s “Live At Kelvin Hall,” but this was the band’s first recorded response to Van Halen.

Sadly, the Kinks responded by turning into a Van Halen cover band. An excellent guitarist in his own right, Dave Davies fell flat trying to imitate Eddie Van Halen (as many, many other axeslingers would also discover). Ray Davies’ pinched London voice could not match Roth’s West Coast bravado. Instead of playing to their strengths, the Kinks played to Van Halen’s strong points, thereby undermining themselves and relinquishing ownership of the original “You Really Got Me.”

I mention all this, because this month Ray Davies has elected to release another version of “You Really Got Me” on his new all-star duets album “See My Friends.” Since the Kinks have been on hiatus since 1996, Davies chose Metallica to back him on this track. Although they are working with the original songwriter, the grunts and asides spewing from Metallica singer James Hetfield make clear that his band is covering Van Halen, not the Kinks. Displaying a leaden stomp that makes Black Sabbath seem nimble, Metallica drain the life from the song as Davies stands helplessly by.

The Kinks original 1964 recording of “You Really Got Me” is a brilliant track. Van Halen’s cover some 14 years later also remains exhilarating (particularly when it is coupled with “Eruption,” the Eddie Van Halen instrumental that preceeds it on the album). Sadly, we have lost one version in the wake of the other.

Keep reading:

“Death Magnetic” is Metallica’s creative rebirth

Bob Dylan: All Along the Watchtower

Lanois + Raffi = Eno

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(Above: Author Greg Kot discusses his book “Ripped” in this 30-minute radio interview.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When I was in graduate school I wrote my précis – an abridged thesis – on how the internet was changing the music industry. It was an exciting time. Napster was in full swing and Metallica’s lawsuit was not only breaking news, but new research ripe for my writing. (Incidentally, the record industry’s great hope at the time was to create a new type of CD that could not be copied or ripped to computer.) I was praised for my paper, but the research did not age well. Barely two years after graduation, its findings were horribly outdated.

Greg Kot fares much better in his recent book “Ripped” How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.” Published in 2009, he takes the long view on the digital evolution of the past decade. The book opens with an overview of how the major labels wound up on the wrong side of their consumers at the turn of the century. In the first three chapters, Kot covers the consolidations that homogenized commercial radio and placed extra emphasis on the major labels’ profit margins; the labels’ revolt against the payola system they built and established; and how labels quashed their artists’ efforts to embrace the Internet.

That’s a lot to cover in 50 pages, but Kot is wise not to belabor these points. Other books – notably Steve Knopper’s “Appetite for Self-Destruction,” which appeared a few months earlier – cover this ground in far more depth. Kot’s summary provides a nice launching pad for the real meat of his book, namely how the net has allowed artists and fans to connect in unexpected ways with unexpected results.

Today Prince is a punching bag for declaring the internet “completely over,” but his actions in the mid-‘90s laid the groundwork for the path Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and other bands currently follow. Walking away from his contract with Warner Bros., Prince built a network with his fans where he would release music directly to them, at a pace he dictated. Without the modern digital infrastructure, distribution was often slow and frustrating. It is puzzling that yesterday’s visionary opted out just when technology became the most accommodating.

Kot also discusses how the internet helped Wilco and Death Cab For Cutie develop an online cult following and how that translated to mainstream success. Another chapter is devoted to the impact of Pitchfork and other online tastemakers. The book ends with the stories of Lily Allen, Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor and Radiohead and how their business models have turned the industry on its head.

A music critic and reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Kot draws on his day job to incorporate first-hand quotes delivered in the heat of the moment. Putting the reader in the speaker’s mind in real time keeps the stories fresh and makes the linear exposition more exciting. Very little is revealed through hindsight; the reader gets everything as it occurs.

“Ripped” shares many traits with Thomas Freidman’s 2006 exploration of the online paradigm “The World is Flat.” Both books hold few revelations for readers who followed the events unfold in real time, but are also handy encapsulations of everything that has occurred. At the same time, they are immensely in explaining to the uninitiated how we got to where we are. Whether “Ripped” deserves a spot on the bookshelf or a visit to the library depends on the reader’s level of knowledge. Either way, it is worth reading.

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Radiohead Rock St. Louis

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(Above: The Arctic Monkeys put their spin on Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Five years ago, the Arctic Monkeys arrived on the music scene riding a wave of hype. The influential British music publication the NME ranked the Arctic Monkey’s debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” ahead of the Beatles, Radiohead and the Clash on its list of top 100 British albums.

Monday night the English quintet came to Liberty Hall in Lawrence in support of its third album, “Humbug.” The transitional album didn’t command the propaganda and isn’t as flashy as their first two efforts, but that didn’t stop a nearly full house from rabidly devouring everything the band played.

Over the course of their 80-minute set, the Monkeys delivered more than half of “Humbug,” including a couple B-sides, and half of their second release, 2007’s “Favourite Worst Nightmare.” The contrasting material revealed two very different sides of the band. “Humbug”’s songs, for the most part, are more downbeat, while the cuts from “Nightmare” border on metal.

Opening number “Dance Little Liar” foreshadowed the juxtaposition with a drum cadence lifted from Metallica’s “One.” As the number died down, a bank of strobe lights behind the band kicked on and the group thrashed their way through “Brainstorm” with a performance that wouldn’t have been out of place at Ozzfest.

The band’s approach seemed to be to combine the angular approach of the Talking Heads and Gang of Four with the speed and intensity of Slayer. Slanted guitar lines, surf riffs and plenty of tremolo framed most of the songs. Even at their heaviest, the Monkey’s songs were infused with enough pop hooks to keep the crowd moving, although it was hard to tell if they were dancing or moshing.

Although the newer material was well received, the biggest cheers came for the three numbers from the band’s debut. The opening chords of “Still Take You Home” prompted a big response, and the crowd went nuts during the one-two of “The View from the Afternoon” and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor.”

Surprisingly those numbers arrived in the middle of the set. After lifting the crowd so high, there was nowhere to go but down, so Alex Turner strapped on an acoustic guitar for the country-tinged “Cornerstone.” Later, a deconstructed reading of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” rendered the already spooky song in a completely new light.

The Monkey’s performed on a minimalist stage, in front of a plain curtain and a bank of lights raised about 10 feet off the ground by a series of poles. When the lights were on, which was frequent, it created an artificial ceiling and made the mid-sized theater feel like a cramped, sweaty basement.

Bass player Nick O’Malley is the band’s secret weapon. Tucked in the back corner at stage right, he supplied the needed melody underpinning the abstract guitar lines. As Jamie Cook and Andy Nicholsonstrafed the songs from unprecedented angles on their guitars, Malley’s melodic bass lines and Matt Helders’ manic drumming held the performances together.

The set ended with the poppy “Fluorescent Adolescent,” which sounded like a mangled Mod single. The aggressive “Nettles” had the crowd clapping along and featured more false endings than a Beethoven symphony. When the number final ended, the instruments were abandoned buzzing, leaving feedback long after the band had departed.

On the way back to the car, I overheard two fans lamenting that more songs from the first album weren’t performed.

“I guess what we have to remember,” one fan said, trying to console himself, “is that what would be new to us, these guys have been carrying for five years.”

Sleepy Sun: While the Arctic Monkeys focus on delivering tightly crafted, manic singles, opening act Sleepy Sun was content to play spacey, long-form album tracks. The six-piece San Francisco band’s 45-minute set was filled with psychedelic, progressive rock that incorporated more than a hint of Black Sabbath and first-album-era Led Zeppelin. The co-ed lead singers brought a touch of folk to the arrangements, particularly when tambourine, harmonica or acoustic guitars were introduced. Fans of Death Star and the Seven Dwarfs, Black Moth Super Rainbow and the Flaming Lips might want to keep an eye open for their next trip through town.

Setlist: Dance Little Liar > Brainstorm; This House is a Circus; Still Take You Home; Potion Approaching; Joining the Dots; My Propeller; Crying Lightning; The View from the Afternoon; I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor; Cornerstone; Fire and the Thud; Do Me A Favour; Pretty Visitors; Red Right Hand (Nick Cave cover) > If You Were There, Beware; 505. Encore: Fluorescent Adolescent; Nettles.

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Review: Megadeth
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(Above: Megadeth perform “Hangar 18” in England earlier this year. The audio quality is pretty much what it sounded like inside the Beaumont Club as well.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Blazing fast guitar licks, double-kick bass-drum riffs and an armada of metal anthems: Dave Mustaine brought everything that made Megadeth famous to the Beaumont Club on Saturday night.

The majority of the quartet’s 90-minute set drew from its reign at the top of the thrash heap in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when it played before massive crowds alongside Slayer and Anthrax and was compared to Mustaine’s former bandmates, Metallica.

Although Mustaine had to rehearse the crowd’s part for “Head Crusher,” one of four songs performed off the band’s current album, “Endgame,” most of the time he was able to step back and let the mob rule the mic. The schizophrenic “Sweating Bullets” and outro to “Peace Sells” were especially lusty sing-alongs. The audience vocals were frequently clearer than Mustaine’s, which were buried in an abysmal mix that made every number sound and feel like brick to the head.

Snarling vocals aside, Megadeth’s other hallmark is lightning-fast, labyrinthine fretwork gymnastics. Although he’s yet to celebrate his second anniversary in the band, guitarist Chris Broderick was more than up to the task, ripping up the extended instrumental half of “Hangar 18,” tearing through the epic “In My Darkest Hour” and trading solos with Mustaine on “She-Wolf” and the warp-speed new song “1,320’.” Ever the gracious host, Mustaine frequently retreated to bang his rusty locks alongside the bank of Marshall amplifiers lined across the back of the stage while Broderick took center stage.

The rhythm section of Shawn Drover and James LoMenzo – Megadeth veterans with six and four years of service, respectively – guided the groove into “Trust” and held down the framework for the guitar pyrotechnics.
While many metal songs focus on war, Mustaine has never been afraid to get political. Megadeth’s previous album was called “United Abominations” and features a song called “Washington is Next!” The closing triptych revealed an interesting point of view.

“Symphony of Destruction” deals with political puppets propped up by a government bent on war. “Peace Sells” discusses disillusionment and hypocrisy of politicians who aim for peace but somehow end up perpetuating war. (The song’s refrain is “Peace sells/but who’s buying?”) “Holy Wars” started out as a referendum on Northern Ireland, but features several Middle Eastern guitar breaks and echoes jihad theory.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t war Mustaine wanted to talk about. Instead, he interrupted “Peace Sells” for an anti-Obama screed, blasting the president without using his name for selling the country to the Chinese and giving away civil rights. Mustaine’s solution was to “write my own (expletive) name in there” on the ballot come election day.

(It is curious that in the week following Obama’s announcement of an Afghani surge after running a campaign on ending the war, Mustaine would ignore these parallels for clichéd attacks.)

After peaking on the charts in the late ‘90s, Mustaine broke up the band in 2002. Two years later, he resurrected the name as the only continuing member, but has yet to regain drawing power as a live act. While the Beaumont was plenty crowded, tickets were still being sold at the door after the band had taken the stage.

If the stumble from stadiums to clubs frustrated Mustaine, it didn’t show. He took time before “44 Minutes” to express heartfelt thanks to everyone for letting them play, and long after the rest of the band had departed, Mustaine lingered onstage after “Holy Wars” to shake hands and congratulate fans.

Setlist: Dialectic Chaos, This Day We Fight, Wake Up Dead, Skin of My Teeth, Head Crusher, A Tout Le Monde, She-Wolf, Tornado of Souls, 1,320’, In My Darkest Hour, Sweating Bullets, Hangar 18, 44 Minutes, Trust, Symphony of Destruction, Peace Sells. Encore: Holy Wars.

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rock hall dvds

By Joel Francis

When the Rolling Stones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, a tuxedo-clad Mick Jagger famously announced “Tonight we’re all on our best behavior — and we’re being rewarded for 25 years of bad behavior.”

That irony is on full display throughout eight of the DVDs in a new collection of induction ceremony performances released by Time Life and the Rock Hall this month. (A ninth disc features highlights from the 1995 Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held in Cleveland.) Despite white tablecloth banquet tables and austere surroundings, great music frequently prevails.

The “Rock Hall Live” discs each run between 75 and 90 minutes and have a loose theme of soul, punk or ‘50s pioneers and the performances span the first ceremony in 1986 to this year’s Metallica induction. The performances tend to fall in two camps.

The early ceremonies were all-star celebrations of the inductees’ songbooks shot with on a couple video camera. Through fly-on-the-wall footage we see Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry swap verses on “Roll Over Beethoven” and Little Richard rejoice through “I Can’t Turn You Loose” as Jagger, Bob Dylan, members of the Beatles, Beach Boys and other rock royalty stand shoulder to shoulder, holding mics and strumming instruments. It’s fun to play spot the artist during these early presentations. Sometimes the results are shocking, as when Stevie Ray Vaughan appears – playing a Les Paul, no less – during “Beethoven.”

As the ceremonies grew in stature, the performances were better preserved and choreographed. The past 15 years of inductions play like one massive VH1 special, makes sense as these events have been a spring broadcast staple on that channel for better than a decade. Although the production is smoother, the spontaneity is retained when Jimmy Page casually strolls onstage to join Jeff Beck on “Beck’s Bolero” and Queen jam with the Foo Fighters on “Tie Your Mother Down.”

With are more than 100 performances across the nine discs, some unevenness is expected. Some this is because of the health of the performers. These discs capture some of the final appearances by The Band’s Rick Danko, Ruth Brown, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Billy Powell and Johnny Cash. Brown and Powell are fine, but Danko and Cash labor through their sets. Sometimes the pairings misfire, as on Bruce Springsteen and Axl Rose’s duet through “Come Together.”

These missteps are minimized by the tight pacing of each disc, which moves from artist to artist like a well-paced soundtrack, with occasional snippets of introduction and induction speeches. (Complete version of selected speeches are available as bonus features.)  Despite the loose themes, each disc boasts a variety of guitar heroes, singer/songwriters, tributes and hits.

The best moments come when the performers reach beyond the formal atmosphere, like when Patti Smith spits onstage, or two kids bum rush the stage to help Green Day commemorate the Ramones. There is an impressive display of solos from guitar heroes Beck, Page, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Joe Perry, Carlos Santana, Peter Green, and Kirk Hammett, but the greatest six-string moment is Prince’s searing tribute to George Harrison on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Anchored by Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Harrison’s son Dhani, the immaculately tailored Prince soars on an jaw-dropping solo that is long on both melody and style.

Each disc contains about a several bonus features, which highlight backstage moments like watching Steven Tyler and Joe Perry induct Led Zeppelin from the wings of the stage with the band (and Willie Nelson!). It’s fun to watch Robbie Robertson, Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty work out “Green River” and to eavesdrop on Hammett and Perry talk about guitars, but one viewing is probably enough.

One downside to this set is the packaging and sequencing. Each disc is housed in its own separate, full-sized case. This takes up a lot of shelf space. It would have been nice if they all came bundled in one compact, cardboard and plastic unit like seasons of TV shows.

The greater inconvenience is the sequencing. Cream’s three-song reunion from 1993 is spread across three discs. Ditto for the Doors’ 1993 set with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (three songs over three discs) and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street revival from 1999 (four songs on four discs). Culling the best moments is understandable, but it would have been great to get the multi-song sets in one place. It is also puzzling that less than two hours of the six-hour Concert for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are included.

Oversights aside, any of these discs stand alone as a fun romp through rock history and celebration of its greatest songs and players across most genres and eras. At $120, this set isn’t cheap, but it’s a heck of a lot more affordable – and easier to come by – than the ticket that gets you a plate at one of those sterile, banquet tables. You don’t have to dress up, either.

(Full disclosure: The Daily Record received a complimentary review copy of “Rock Hall Live.”)

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Rock Hall Celebrates the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock

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Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part one)

Bruce Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part two)

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By Joel Francis

For a band that takes five years between albums, quantity has never been an issue for Metallica. Indeed, every release for the past 20 years has clocked in at or well above the 70-minute mark.

The issue of quality has been a different matter. While each album may have flirted with the digital-capacity ceiling, they were also larded with lumbering material that didn’t stand up to multiple listens.

Until now.

“Magnetic Death” is Metallica’s finest album in a generation. Banished are the plastic drums and all-riff, no-solo approach of “St. Anger.” Gone is the straightforward, radio-approved songwriting of “Load” and “Re-Load.” Instead the quartet weaves through tricky time signature and twists through syncopated progressions with an energy that recalls “Master of Puppets” and “… And Justice for All.”

The first three songs tell the whole story. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammet is back applying his signature wah wah peddle accents. His guitar screeches, swoops and dives through solos like a Kamikaze fighter strafing the deck. James Hetfield’s voice nice blend of the melody learned on past few albums with his trademark primal growl. He’s still a lion, but one who’s learned a thing or two over a lifetime of hunts. Drummer Lars Ulrich has returned from the land of 4/4 time, relentlessly hammering sixteenth notes into his bass drums and navigating the intensity and dynamics of the material.

The centerpiece of the album is “All Nightmare Long,” an eight-minute campaign that starts with a dark funk intro and glides into the tight, stabbing attack that was Metallica’s bread and butter in the ‘80s. It is followed by “Cyanide,” another ‘80s throwback.

“The Unforgiven III” follows this powerful one-two punch with a piano and strings intro reminiscent of the “symphony and Metallica” experiment. The song serves two purposes – it allows the listener to catch his breath, and it shows the bands can still write a radio-ready single when it needs to.

Like all recent Metallica albums, “Magnetic Death” would benefit from some editing. Power ballad “The Day That Never Comes” is too much like the band’s ‘90s mainstream material, and while every other song rocks hard not every jam warrants more than five minutes (especially the 10-minute instrumental “Suicide and Redemption”).

These quibbles will mean nothing to the metalheads who exited at “Enter Sandman,” – this is the album they’ve been waiting for. And for those who jumped on the bandwagon at “Sad But True” the band has never sounded better.

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