Friday, 8 November 2019

Alcest - Spiritual Instinct (2019)

Country: France
Style: Blackgaze
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
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I haven't listened to enough Alcest but I've liked what I've heard thus far and I like what I hear on this, their sixth album, too. They started out as a black metal band but then they veered into shoegaze territory, an unusual choice but one which seemed to be a natural evolution for them. In between and after, they've merged the two genres to effectively define blackgaze. I say "they" because they are a band nowadays, a gentleman named Winterhalter handling the drums and percussion, but for most of their history they were one man, who goes by the name of Neige, and he does everything else.

This certainly fits well in the blackgaze genre, with half of the album full of blastbeats and dissonance and the other slow and ethereal like the post-punk era that influenced shoegaze. Michael Nelson of Stereogum described Le Secret, Alcest's pioneering 2005 EP, as being "like a Cocteau Twins/Burzum collaborative split". This plays pretty close to that description, although the alternation of those styles has gradually become a true merger of them, so that the Cocteau Twins parts and the Burzum parts can and often do play out at the same time.

For instance, the guitars that follow the killer bass in opener Les jardins de minuit are both somehow both harsh and melodic at the same time, and the sweet voice that soars over it all adds more melody. Even when it ramps up into hyperspeed, it never loses that melody, so that songs feel rather like welcoming danger, like a tray of cookies laced with cyanide brought to you by your new neighbour.

The other tracks follow suit. L'ile des morts kicks off with a pulsing synth beat and harsh guitars at speed. There are points where the speed takes over but the melody is still there in the vocals. I should add that those vocals are clean here almost exclusively. While the blastbeats and harsh guitars of black metal are frequent, there are precious few shrieks. Protection may be the only track that really goes there with a couple of moments behind clean vocals on Sapphire.

My favourite here is surely Le miroir, which does all this with emphasis. It starts out with a glorious drum build, then shifts into delicate intricacy, not unlike a Wishbone Ash track. It almost turns into a melodic Iron Maiden instrumental section, but slowed down for effect and staged theatrically. A wall of darkness, hovering from those initial drums, rises up behind it as it develops, but a soft voice floats over too. What results is less a song and more a sort of sonic sculpture in the vein of Shriekback or the Cocteau Twins, hurled out there as a gift to the gods of the dark. Even the patient but decidedly vicious single cymbal clashes are delightful.

That's a fair description of the rest of the album too. The biggest problem for me was how it was a delight to listen to but a bear to try to focus on. I had this playing for three or four days so it's become an old friend, but even now it mostly plays like a forty minute piece of music rather than the six individual tracks that make up that running time.

It's especially hard to focus on the longest song, L'île des morts, which is a nine minute textbook on dynamics. None of these songs are short, Sapphire the shortest at five minutes even, but they're the usual sort of length for an Alcest album. Looking back, I only see one track, Délivrance on the 2014 album Shelter, that exceeds ten minutes and that only by six seconds. I left this wondering what an actual forty minute Alcest track might sound like.

I doubt it would sound too much different to this, though with a little more control in the structuring of its dynamics. And that's not a bad thing. This is wonderfully evocative stuff, whether we see it as a single album or a set of half a dozen tracks, and it tells me that I need to go back and pay a lot more attention to those previous five albums and some of the other material that peppers Neige's back catalogue.

Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper - At the Gates (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 11 Oct 2019
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I remember Grim Reaper without remembering Grim Reaper. They were around at the point I discovered rock and metal, though I don't recall them ever being played on the Friday Rock Show. Their second album, Fear No Evil, was one of the first albums I bought, I believe, the memorable hand-drawn cover art as unapologetically metal as it gets with its grim reaper, in flowing red robe and with a scythe strapped perhaps unwisely to its back bursting through a stained glass window on a motorbike.

What I don't recall are the songs, even after going back to that album in a quest to spark my memory. I remember vocalist and the band's current leader, Steve Grimmett, more from other bands. He was on the underrated Chateaux LP Chained and Desperate, joined Onslaught for their third album and formed the excellent band Lionsheart in the early nineties.

For a while, this album made me wonder if I just wasn't paying due attention back then, because it's top notch metal in the British style of the eighties that I remember growing out of NWOBHM, with a heavy but melodic approach. The drums pound, the guitars take flight and the vocals soar, but everything is done with hooks firmly in mind. It's fast stuff but it's not speed metal. It's technical but it's not complex. It's catchy but, outside Iron Maiden, it's not what made it into the charts.

Then I started to realise the fatal flaw. After a few listens through to get the general impact, I realised that every song is solid but none of them are able to stand out for special attention. Taken in isolation, every song here is decent, worthy of our attention on its own merits, and each of them does its job in a slightly different way. However, put together, none of them is particularly memorable and neither is the album as a whole.

Part of that may be because the best of the songs are at the very beginning: the title track and Venom, tracks one and two. The former has the best riff and the latter the best hook, or maybe that should be the other way round. Either way, they would both be solid singles. From there onwards, I enjoyed every song and never felt that the quality dropped off, but I still didn't leave the album with the feeling that I'd just heard something amazing.

I thought about how we're used to much heavier material nowadays; this isn't remotely extreme. We're used to a lot more complex music; this is content to do without frills. There's nothing original or groundbreaking; if it wasn't for the excellent modern production, this could easily have been written in 1986. All four musicians are clearly capable and it's good to see that Steve Grimmett's voice hasn't lost any power at all over a decade or three, but I can't call anyone out for special mention. The problem is that every point I just made suggests that this is run of the mill and it isn't.

What it is, I think, is outstandingly generic. I must have seen every one of these song titles on a dozen other albums and the lyrics are also likely to be similar every time out too. Under the Hammer is decent but it's also just another song called Under the Hammer that does pretty much what every other song called Under the Hammer does. What is there in this one that might make me remember it? Nothing.

I liked Breakneck Speed, except for the fact that it's not delivered close to breakneck speed and I'm more likely to remember a song with that title if it's recorded by an actual speed metal band. What's Line Them Up about? Or Rush? What Lies Beneath? I really can't remember and I've been listening to them for a few hours now.

And that's why my eventual feeling here is disappointment. There isn't a bad song on this album, but I doubt that there's one that I'm going to remember in a couple of weeks. Listening to it, I'm thinking 7/10 at least because I'm having a ball with it but, if I wait an hour and think again, it can't be anything but 6/10 because I can't remember anything. Maybe that's why those eighties albums haven't stayed with me either.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Jeff Lynne's ELO - From Out of Nowhere (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
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Jeff Lynne is another classic name whose new album seems to have come, well, from out of nowhere, given that I thought he was happy as a mega-producer to the legends, but apparently he reformed the Electric Light Orchestra back in 2014 under the name of Jeff Lynne's ELO and this is the second album to see a release under that name, after 2015's Alone in the Universe.

If you're into Lynne's style of pop/rock, this is an essential album. There simply isn't a single bad song here, each of the ten on offer being a three minute and change crafted masterpiece with a hook that most musicians would kill for. It's the closest thing I've heard to the Beatles since, well, the Beatles and, even with long term collaborator Richard Tandy on board again, it's pretty much a one man band nowadays.

Lynne wrote all the music, of course, and that's his voice on all the songs, often harmonising with himself. He played almost every instrument: not just the guitar, bass and drums but piano, cello and even vibraphone. He handled the production. He probably even put the coffee on when needed. Tandy did a piano solo on One More Time and engineer Steve Jay added some percussion at points, which may mean that he shook a couple of tambourines. And that's the extent of outside involvement, I think.

Clearly the man is a genius, but the real question is whether this is going to stand up to posterity as there are two obvious catches.

One is that this sounds safe, something that I'm starting to resent as I get old. With every year that passes, I find myself empathising more with the Dude from The Big Lebowski: "I hate the fuckin' Eagles, man." It's not that they don't do their jobs supremely well. It's just that I know they can add an edge but they refuse to do it because it'll hurt the bottom line.

The other is that the album's sound is so inevitably consistent. While it's clearly in the style of the Beatles, it's very safe Beatles, with maybe an extra pinch of safe Eric Clapton on songs like All My Love. Listen to this through, then follow up with Sgt. Pepper and Disraeli Gears and recall what those musicians did when they didn't have self-imposed boundaries.

Even when the source style isn't outright Beatles-influenced pop, such as the funk of All My Love, the soul of Goin' Out on Me and the rock 'n' roll of One More Time, the end result still sounds like John Lennon singing for the Beatles in the seventies. That's odd, of course, given that Lennon was from Liverpool and Lynne hails from Birmingham, but it's there nonetheless.

All that said, the last time I felt like this about an album was Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, which sounded like a safe take on what Petty had previously done, mostly because of the writing and production of one Jeff Lynne, but it went on to become a bona fide classic and, as much as it gets overplayed on my local classic rock station, I'm not tired of it yet the way I am of Take It to the Limit Eighty-Four More Times.

This album seems strong enough for a similar end result and I don't know why I'm surprised. Lynne will turn 72 years old next month and he's apparently rediscovered his love for writing and performing. He's rich enough to never set foot in a studio again, let alone on a stage, but he clearly felt driven to write another ELO album and do it this damn well. All power to him.

November's Doom - Nephilim Grove (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
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I've heard November's Doom before but somehow they never clicked with me. I have no idea why. Maybe I wasn't listening to the right albums. Maybe I was too invested in the English doom/death sound that was growing up around me in Halifax from local bands like Paradise Lost, Anathema and My Dying Bride. Maybe I just wasn't ready. Whatever the reason, they never engaged with me.

This album did from the outset. Opening track Petrichor rolls along with an inexorability to it, as if nothing in the world could slow it down except a pause or break decreed by the metal gods. There's a point in the second half that sounds like it came out of Sad Wings of Destiny and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, but as a breakdown from a drumming blitzkrieg that could never have happened back in the seventies.

Interestingly, the vocals are slow and harmonising, even when the drums are at their most blistering. It's almost like there are a couple of different bands playing at the same time and at completely different tempos but oddly remaining in sync throughout. Those vocals are clean, by the way, and eager to elongate and hold notes, though harsh vocals show up on other tracks.

I see that drummer Garry Naples is the new fish in the band, having joined as recently as 2011, so I wonder if he changed their sound (research states that may have been more Vito Marchese's doing, after he joined in 2003). I don't recall them being remotely this fast, even when they got going. If he did, good on him because the contrast between slow vocals and fast drums is an enticing one. I know what fast death and slow doom/death sound like and this is not really either but somehow both.

It's also progressive and comfortable with that. There's Opeth here but the list doesn't end there. There's also Voivod and Tool and Budgie and a whole bunch of wildly different bands. The title track is a great example of that variety, with a slow quiet build ending up firmly in death metal territory but with Sisters of Mercy vocals and Uriah Heep organ.

There's always been a gothic element to doom/death (hey, my favourite genre album is Paradise Lost's Gothic) but it feels a lot more obvious here than I remember for November's Doom. If songs like What We Become or The Clearing Blind had their elements of death metal removed, as indeed they are on the Matte Variant bonus tracks on the limited edition, they ought to be right up the alley of traditional goths. It's certainly much closer to the sound of My Dying Bride than any era of Paradise Lost, perhaps because they were always the more prog of the doom/death bands that I grew up with.

Given what works here, I can easily see them going more and more into a My Dying Bride direction, because the clean vocals work so much better than the harsh ones. The latter are done well, but they're unable to raise the level of melancholia on a song that the clean vocals do effortlessly. It doesn't feel like they're complementing each other most of the time, though they do that at points, such as on Black Light. Most of the time they're battling as to what a song should be and the clean vocals win those battles every time.

I liked this. I liked how comfortable November's Doom felt doing this, as if they've evolved their sound to the point where things just feel right. These nine songs all do different things but in a similar way, mixing death not so much with doom but with goth and prog. Each runs for a reasonably consistent length, from just under five minutes to just under seven. That gives them a decent amount of time to mix up their formula and do new things.

This will prompt me to go backwards and see if maybe I'll enjoy earlier work by November's Doom, but it certainly prompts me to want to hear whatever the next album will sound like.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Babymetal - Metal Galaxy (2019)

Country: Japan
Style: Kawaii Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Oct 2019
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It's rare that when a band conjures its genre out of thin air, it's actually more accurate that anything else we can come up with. Case in point: Japan's imaginative export du jour, Babymetal, who call themselves "kawaii metal". I honestly can't come up with anything better, especially on this, their third album, because it's all over the musical map.

At heart, as you probably know by now, it's heavy metal meets Jpop, a weird combination but at times a very good one. However, this album aims to mimic their journey bringing kawaii metal to all corners of the earth by bringing local music into their own, so it's often a sort of folk metal, as indeed a favourite song like their debut single, Megitsune, kind of was. When this is successful, it's fascinating. When it isn't, on the other hand, it's pretty awful and that's why I have to give it only a 6/10 rating.

It's hard to come up with any defining logic around which songs succeed and which don't, except that the worst heavily feature autotune and the best are the most international in flavour. I wouldn't have expected Pa Pa Ya!! to be one of my favourites, given that it features Thai rapper F. Hero, but it's a wonderful song. Once again, it's unlikely genres merging in a way that works but I can't explain why.

Shanti Shanti Shanti is easily my choice for the best song on the album. It delves into Indian music enough that it sounds like it began as a Bollywood song, but it leaps into both metal crunch and pop cuteness, mixing all three elements well. The middle features traditional Japanese melodies over Indian drums. I'd absolutely watch the Bollywood movie this came from.

Oh! Majinai does the same with what sounds like half Russian and half Celtic music. The guest vocalist is Joakim Brodén, the voice of Swedish power metal band Sabaton and he drives much of the song. It could be more than it is but it's still a lot of fun, much of it in the vocal shenanigans.

These two remind that, for all the power the musicians generate behind them, Babymetal are a vocal band. Many of the songs here are pop songs with added crunch. Da Da Dance is a rave with guitars, like a kawaii Rob Zombie. Rarely do the songs seem to start out as metal but add pop vocals. Elevator Girl is certainly one and it works a little better for it. At points, the guitars seem to make the singers go faster.

What surprises the most is how varied those vocals get, even if we focus on the Japanese girls rather than the guests. BxMxC is really interesting with its chiptune voice effects and other vocal acrobatics. Sadly, it utilises a lot of autotune, which makes the whole thing sound artificial and false. It became really hard to not skip songs like Brand New Day and ↑↓←→BBAB when listening through again. The former features Tim Henson and Scott LePage of American math rockers Polyphia and serves mostly as a reason not to look at what they sound like normally.

How the whole album doesn't end up as an unholy mess, I have no idea. To me, some of it does. Brand New Day, for example, is an overproduced mess that I just can't stand. Future Metal is nothing but an intro with autotune. Fasten your neckbrace, it tells us, before taking us into a rave with Da Da Dance. Sometimes it works, like In the Name Of, which is choral until the Brazilian steel drums take over in time for the ethnic death growls. I have zero idea where this ends up. Which parallel universe am I in?

Night Night Burn! is the epitome of this. It starts out as electronica meets neo-classical metal and stays that way until it doesn't. Cuban rhythms play behind staccato nu metal riffage before leaping onto centre stage. Was that the James Bond theme in there? It's all over the musical map but, again, it's immersive and enticing and fascinating.

I either really liked or really disliked the first dozen songs but was never bored for a second. The biggest problem the album has isn't that it fails to be all things for all people but because it forgets what it is. After those dozen songs, there are four more but they're instantly forgettable because a key element, that wild and insane imagination, is missing from them all.

I won't diss them because I went back later and listened only to those four songs, finding that they're decent enough on their own merits. The girls go extra cute on Shine and Arkadia is a solid melodic death metal song of the sort that Abba might have made had they formed a quarter of a century later in Gothenburg. It's just that they should have been issued as a separate EP rather than buried under a dozen wild and varied musical explorations.

What's especially interesting is that my son, who saw them live a couple of weeks ago, roughly agreed with my takes but didn't match entirely. There are songs that I didn't like at all that pushed the right buttons for him. And I think that's the key here. You're not likely to enjoy everything here but it has enough tracks that deleting the half you don't still leaves half an hour of stuff that you dig and which you absolutely won't hear anywhere else.

Mudhoney - Morning in America (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
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I remember Mudhoney from their earlier days, though I never kept up with the band. I loved their 1988 single Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More, which I probably heard on the John Peel show and which featured a style I'd never heard before. It was really garage rock but so raw and so achingly slow that it tripped a lot of the same buttons that doom metal does. Of course, before long, it would evolve into grunge and the rest is history.

I had no idea that Mudhoney were back and I was even more surprised to find that they'd never gone away. They've been together since 1988 and their most recent album, their tenth, was last year's Digital Garbage. This EP seems to be a set of outtakes from that album with a few other obscurities. It's not as raw as I remember, but then that single predated any of their albums and they've cleaned up a bit since then. Fortunately, I'd say, not much. This is garage rock not much rawer than the Alice Cooper EP I reviewed yesterday.

There are seven tracks here and four of them tie to that album in some form.

Three are outtakes and my favourite is easily Creeps are Everywhere. It has an effortless nature to it but it's outstandingly catchy. This is what punk pop really ought to be: loud and sneeringly obnoxious but with a fantastic hook. If Digital Garbage was like this, I need to seek it out! I'm less fond of the other two, Morning in America and Snake Oil Charmer, but they're good songs. The former has that agreeably slow burn and is very much of its time, starting out with "America hates itself."

The fourth is Let's Kill Yourself Live Again, which is an alternate take of a Digital Garbage song called Kill Yourself Live; it had previously been the bonus track on the Japanese release. I liked this and caught many influences from Iggy Pop to Joy Division. I'd always heard that grunge's influences all had to be from Seattle, from the Sonics onwards, but I was never quite happy with that propaganda.

That leaves three more. One Bad Actor and Vortex of Lies are both taken from singles. The former was formerly half of a split 7" with Hot Snakes and the latter was a limited tour release in the EU. One Bad Actor has a lot more of that Iggy Pop vibe, Mark Arm snarling in that recognisable way while turning out riffs on an outrageously fuzzy guitar. Vortex of Lies is slower and less effective for me which makes it an odd opener for the EP. It feels like Cake but wilder and less controlled.

And that just leaves Ensam i Natt, which is a cover of a song by the Swedish band known as the Leather Nun. Even though the title is in Swedish, the song is in English, revealing that it means So Lonely Tonight. It's another solid garage rock anthem. It's my other favourite here, even though it's over too quickly at just a breath over two minutes. In fact, this whole EP could have been longer, these seven songs amounting to only twenty-two minutes. If only Mudhoney had had more outtakes!

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Exhumed - Horror (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Oct 2019
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It seems rather appropriate to follow up an Alice Cooper release with a new album simply titled Horror. The band are Exhumed, one of California's finest death metal bands. They founded in 1990, split up in 2005 and got back together in 2010 and this is their fourth album since then, more than they released before they split, if we ignore the gratuitous covers album Garbage Daze Re-Regurgitated, as glorious as its title was.

What seemed immediately obvious was how lo-fi the recording is. It's a much quieter recording than anything else I've heard lately. In fact, everything seems to be buried in the mix. We have to turn up to eleven just to hear the band. However, it has no hesitation about leaping into action at high speed. Exhumed are old school death metal with a heavy side dose of grindcore and I have to admit I haven't delved into that of late, so this seemed fresh.

Even with fifteen songs on offer, this runs shorter than Reign in Blood, the infamously short Slayer album. Like Reign in Blood, this blisters along with hardly a moment to catch our breath and there a couple of screams that feel highly reminiscent of Tom Araya's legendary first take for Angel of Death. I only see five songs over two minutes and none over three. The shortest, as I guess has been traditional for grindcore at least since Napalm Death's You Suffer, is Utter Mutilation of Your Corpse at a mere seven seconds, four of which are fadeout.

There's very little variety here, of course. Mike Hamilton's drum kit is set to ludicrous speed for almost the entire album, a slower section in The Red Death only being slower as a relative concept. The guitars of mainstay Matt Harvey, the sole founder member, and new fish Sebastian Philips are often a blur but, after a while, the riffs start to emerge. So do the solos and I'm still not sure how they find time for two of those into a two minute song like Rabid.

I'm sure the bass of the wonderfully named Matt Sewage is somewhere in there too but I have no idea where. He's more overtly present as one of two voices in play, which offer far more contrast than harsh/harsh might suggest. One's much deeper than the other. Which one's Sewage and which is Harvey I haven't a clue. I'd have to go back to mid-period albums, as Sewage is on his second stint with the band and I really can't remember.

This really takes me back to my youth when grindcore was new and I couldn't tell the difference between most of the tracks but loved the sheer burst of energy that they provided. If thrash metal cleaned me out, grindcore was an evil alternate universe version that shattered me into pieces and then put me back together again, maybe in a different order. Some of those pits were insane and the bands weren't far behind. I don't think I've seen anyone on drums faster than whoever played for Intense Degree.

The challenge, of course, is to maintain that energy spike across an entire album. Exhumed do a pretty good job at that here, benefitting from the short running time and the many gaps between tracks. Songs do blur together but a couple of listens allows some to emerge as favourites. Mine is Ripping Death, without any doubt. Its chorus of "Ripping death, ripping fucking death" is a shopping list for the younger me back in 1989. I like Dead Meat too, a blitz at only 34 seconds, again including fadeout. Its chorus is exactly what you expect: "Dead meat. Dead meat. Dead meat. Dead meat!"

The pros are obvious. This is blitzkrieg stuff, for those who believe that Reign in Blood just wasn't fast or aggressive enough. This feels old school, though, as if it was new when the movie in the faux poster cover came out on VHS. Maybe that comes from them writing what are really pop songs sped up to crazy tempos. There are verses and choruses and hooks and that's not always the case with grindcore.

The cons mostly tie to the genre. I still like grindcore, but I find that I can't immerse myself in it for days any more. While there's variety here, it pales in comparison to what I find in folk metal or even melodic death metal when the band is someone like Insomnium. My biggest criticism here is that the album just ends, as if there might be other tracks coming later but they haven't downloaded yet. But hey, just put the album on repeat to solve that.