Thursday, 7 May 2020

Havok - V (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 May 2020
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It's not a bad time for American thrash, with Testament, Warbringer and now Havok releasing their new albums in the span of less than a month. The genre groups on Facebook are busy arguing about which is better, but they kind of all are in their way. The Testament is the most accomplished, without a real debate being viable there; but the Warbringer arguably reaches the highest peaks and this is surely the most consistently up tempo and energetic, with the most manic solos.

That's not to say that all of these albums have flaws and this one's show up early. Post-Truth Era has the second intro in a week for me to be obviously borrowed from Blackened and then Ritual of the Mind kicks off like Harvester of Sorrow. It seems almost weird that the rest of the album doesn't plan to be ...And Justice for All for a new generation. While it's hard for a thrash band not to show an influence in early Metallica, it's nowhere near as overt as we might imagine from those intros.

Ritual of the Mind is the most obviously Metallica influenced, because it's a slower song than the first three tracks and it cares more about a stalking feel and careful composition than just blistering along with energy. There's a machine gun guitar section late on that reminds of the late section in One as well. Interface with the Infinite is another midpace song, though it has some neat guitarwork to create texture that moves it away from Metallica.

To me, this feels more like early Megadeth musically but with David Sanchez channelling Bobby Blitzer from Overkill vocally. Perhaps this higher scream is partly why I'm not a big fan of the mix. I do like how crystal clean the drums sound and how the bass is so easy to track, especially on tracks like Betrayed by Technology and Panpsychism, but I had to play around quite a bit with the equaliser to calm down the top end.

Of course, this isn't Megadeth and other influences creep in now and again. Cosmetic Surgery has a Slayer feel to it, especially early on before vocals show up and late on when they're done. In between it has a bounce that's far more east coast. There's a more progressive feel to a song like Panpsychism, though it never quite makes it to the level of, say, a Hexenhaus. Merchants of Death kicks like an Overkill song beyond just Sanchez's vocals, though it still reminds of Megadeth, back when they were fast and energetic.

Following that peach of a speed workout is an eight minute epic called Don't Do It, easily the longest track on the album and a song that combines those two approaches into one song. It's technical prog thrash for a long time and even the intro sounds original, but it kicks in hard six minutes in for what is by far the best couple of minutes of the album, ending with a neat outro.

So Havok aim for quite a lot here and they capture a good chunk of what they aim for. It starts fast and ends fast, but plays with some different sounds in between. I think I'm happier with the heads down no nonsense songs, like Phantom Force and Merchants of Death, and the more imaginative ones, such as Panpsychism and Don't Do It, not to forget that guitar texture on Interface with the Infinite.

While those Facebook thrash groups rave about this holy trinity of brand new American thrash albums, I'm just enjoying them. There's some great stuff on each of them, but I'm finding problems with each too. The best thrash album for me this year is still Annihilator and they're a Canadian band. This is a decent and welcome album featuring a few songs that'll surely get those pits moving when gigs open up, and I say the same about Testament and Warbringer, but I seem to be wanting a lot more from my thrash nowadays and I'm wondering where I'll find it next.

Fren - Where Do You Want Ghosts to Reside (2020)



Country: Poland
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
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While I never expected it, prog isn't just alive and well in 2020, it's at a peak. Major prog bands are putting out their best work in years and a lot of new bands are springing up with quality material. Case in point: Fren, from Kraków in Poland, for whom this is a debut. It's brilliant stuff, shockingly mature for a first album, combining krautrock experimentation with some more traditional composition, conjuring up a simple theme and then running with it across multiple instruments and levels of complexity.

Fren's sound is drawn primarily, if not entirely, from the seventies, though had this been released in, say, 1975, it would have been regarded as rather heavy for the era, especially through riffs like the one on Surge. That fits its name really well, as Michał Chalota's goes looking for trouble from the outset and promptly enlisting Andrew Shamanov's bass, which plays a prowling monster from moment one. There's a calmer section midway but it's the eye of the storm because everything surges into dangerous action again before it's done.

Not everything here is heavy. In fact most of it isn't, as it's keyboard led for the most part, the man responsible for most of that being Oskar Cenkier. I couldn't suggest a single influence, but there's a lot of Pink Floyd here, along with jazz prog rockers like Focus or King Crimson. I should emphasise that all these songs are instrumental, so imagine bands like those in a jam session with any vocalists away from the mike.

Add in synths from Van der Graaf Generator or, on occasion, Tangerine Dream, as well as a Jethro Tull flute and you have a heady mix. Some sections on Heavy Matter remind of a long Boston intro before the song moves into David Gilmour solo territory. The first half of Time to Take Stones Away takes the Elton John, from, say, Funeral for a Friend, and combines it with a rhythmic Philip Glass approach, which is an interesting sound indeed.

I've been playing this album to death on repeat and there are no parts that I've ever wanted to skip over. I really can't say whether I prefer Fren in their more emphatic moments, like on Surge or in the urgent parts in others, or in a gentle mode, in piano-led sections like the intro to Pleonasm or by the soft swirling synths on opener Twin Peaks. They travel a lot of musical territory here and it's all good.

Certainly, Pleonasm is my favourite piece here, because it does so much in a mere twelve minutes, all of it apparently effortlessly. It kicks off gently, with a rippling brook of a piano that springs into broader life soon enough, unfolding in the form of a jazzy workout that's utterly delightful. Cenkier is at his very best here and, gradually, after letting him do his thing for a while, the rest of the band join in to shine with their own contributions too.

There's a serious maturity in an approach like that, as well as patience and a strong view of the bigger picture. This doesn't remotely sound like it's a debut album, just as Cenkier doesn't remotely sound like he's just starting out. I have no idea if any of these four musicians have prior histories with other bands in Poland but it sounds like they all did and they each brought a different set of influences to the table.

Part of that maturity also lies in how long these songs are, because they're each as long as they need to be, whether that's the three minutes of Gorąca Linia or the twelve of Pleonasm. Ironically, the word "pleonasm" is an exact opposite to what I'm hearing here; it means linguistic overredundancy, using more words than are necessary in description, like "burning fire". In other words, Pleonasm is definitely not pleonasm and neither is anything else on this stunning debut album.

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Mike Tramp - Second Time Around (2020)



Country: Denmark
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 May 2020
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I remember Danish singer Mike Tramp from his time with melodic hard rockers White Lion, but I don't believe I've heard any of his solo albums, which he started to release after disbanding Freak of Nature in the late nineties. I see that this new album isn't exactly a new album, being ten tracks from an earlier thirteen track album, the self-titled release from Mike Tramp & The Rock 'n' Roll Circuz in 2009, recorded afresh with almost the same line-up. Why I'm not entirely sure, but that earlier album may only have seen release in Denmark.

I haven't heard that Rock 'n' Roll Circuz album, so can't speak to why this second crack at it, but Second Time Around certainly sounds good. The mix is excellent, the instruments vibrant and Tramp's voice clearly elevated above them all. And the songs are pretty good too. Some of these, especially the opener, All of My Life, could play on my local classic rock station without seeming remotely out of place.

All of My Life is a first person story song that puts Tramp emphatically in traditional American rock territory. It's a little like Jon Bon Jovi and a little like Bruce Springsteen, but the vocal is more emphatic than either, so I'd call out John Cougar Mellencamp as the most obvious comparison, just with lines that actually rhyme.

The new order of tracks adds in the other common elements early on. The Road has less working man rasp and more alternative rock, so it reminds a little of REM, especially through one familiar melody. Anymore, which title should have been two words back in 2009 and highlights just how much Tramp's time in America has gone to his brain, is a softer song, bringing in an acoustic guitar, a broken relationship and a country vibe.

Come On mixes all of those ingredients together, which recipe ends up being rather like a heavier Bryan Adams song, and that becomes the default sound for the album, with songs varying the formula by adding little touches here and there: a la la la chorus on Lay Down Your Guns, an AC/DC riff on Back to You, a piano on Highway. If you liked Bryan Adams albums like Reckless and Cuts Like a Knife, you'll dig this album too.

The songs that shone out for me are the ones that attempted to do something different, with All of My Life the exception because it's just a damn good melodic rock story song. Between Good and Bad is the first one to not sound American because the bedrock is clearly Thin Lizzy, right down to a notably confident bass and a staccato Jailbreak-style riff. No More Tomorrow is the other one I'd call out, because it's a lot more lively, led by an intricate riff and backed throughout by a cloud of keyboards that set an ambience.

My least favourite song is easily the ballad that closes out the album. It's called When She Cries and, while it isn't much softer than the other tracks on this album, it's the only one that doesn't seem to be fully formed. It's more like a rehearsal that shows promise but needs more work before it would be ready to share outside the band. It feels odd that a song like that would make a released album but even more so when it's over a decade old and this is the second time it's been on a "new album".

It's the only poor song here though, to my thinking, though there were three other songs on The Rock 'n' Roll Circuz that didn't make this redux. All in all, it's good to hear Tramp's voice again, even if it's on older material.

Setoml - Reincarnation (2020)



Country: Ukraine
Style: Melodic Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives

Here's another black metal album from Satanath Records, who are putting out a lot of interesting material nowadays, mostly in that genre. This time, the band is Setoml, from Kyiv in the Ukraine, who are just two people: Serge Krivoviaz on vocals and Anton Semenenko, who goes by DeMort and plays all the instruments. The genre is nominally melodic black metal, which seems fair, but Krivoviaz's voice is often as close to a death growl as a black shriek and slower sections are as reminiscent of death/doom as ambient black.

The opening songs, Flames and In the Cold Eyes, set the pace. The drums are fast, as you might expect, though the tempo varies considerably because of double bass fills. The guitars often run as slowly as the drums go fast and have an icy tone to them that helps invoke the frozen wastes of the north, even though Kyiv is as close to the deserts of Iraq as it is to the fjords of Norway. The vocals are an odd mix of styles, as Krivoviaz sings with an expected hoarse shriek but one that's surprisingly deep and growly.

I'm not sure what instruments Semenenko actually plays, beyond the obvious guitar, bass and drums, but it sounds like there's an organ in there too on quite a few tracks. I first heard it on In the Gray Field of Hope but it's particularly strong on Night Dance and Their Wings are Gray Like Spirits. I really like that sound, whether it's keyboard-driven or just a guitar tone. It certainly moves slowly but surely, like the guitars do, providing melody over the wall of sound drums.

While Flames defines the sound that the band follow pretty much throughout, they do add some interesting touches to later songs. The first to grab me in a way that went beyond the core sound was Thousands Shimmering Souls, which stalks gloriously for a while, building slowly with a guitar that sounds as if it shimmers as much as the souls of the title. The drums are inventive at the midpoint too, before the vocals turn into a goblin chorus chattering at the base of the giant trees that the music become.

At over eight minutes, it's the longest song here and maybe it's the longer songs that impress me most. Their Wings are Gray Like Spirits almost reaches eight minutes too and that's in my top three as well, with the organ adding a wonderful extra layer. Best of all, though, is Night Dance, clocking in at just under six minutes. It kicks off with some really unusual rhythms for a black metal album, but quickly settles into a memorable groove. The organ on both those tracks is a delight, adding simple but creepy and very effective melodies over the top of everything else.

While the four or five minute songs are decent too, they feel like they're a level of complexity shy of the longer ones, as if they're missing an element that would elevate them too. That doesn't mean that they're not interesting, as they still have their moments. By the Dark Lake unfolds much slower until it ramps back up to full speed and blisters, and Setoml are more interesting when they slow down than when they shift into high gear.

I didn't catch any of the lyrics, but apparently these songs follow a common theme, as given away by the album title. Each explores the reincarnation of the soul after death, presumably in a different way. The press release talks about the nocturnal butterfly, as some belief systems suggest that departed souls reincarnate as such creatures. It's certainly a neat idea to build an album around but I can't say how successfully it manages that without seeing the lyrics.

This is the first album for Setoml, which was only formed in 2018, but both members play in other bands too. DeMort played guitar in Amily, a doom/death band, and handles everything in Luna, a symphonic funeral doom project. Both have albums out, as does I Miss My Death, a symphonic doom/death outfit with gothic flavour for which Serge Krivoviaz, credited as Sergiy Kryvoyaz, sings and plays guitar. I'm especially interested in the latter but ought to check out the former too.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Katatonia - City Burials (2020)



Country: Sweden
Style: Post-Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
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I haven't heard all of Katatonia's albums by any means, but I've heard ones from each of their very different eras. I liked them as a doom/death band in the early nineties; I liked them as they moved away from the extremes; and I kind of still like them now that they're a prog band who are as much rock as metal. This eleventh album is thoughtful, carefully constructed post-metal that I needed repeat listens to really grasp. Patience can be a virtue. But unlike other bands who have similarly transformed, I kind of miss the early days.

It's pleasant enough stuff even on a first listen, but nothing particularly grabbed me that time. Over a couple more, the songs started to soak into my brain and the melodies took hold. Everything Jonas Renkse does nowadays is melody, but it's mostly subtle stuff, hardly grand vocal hooks. The solos do much the same thing and the backing alternates between quieter parts where the bass is very noticeable to emphatic sections with staccato riffs.

Overall, the sound is very nice, which is frankly meant both as a compliment and a putdown. The vocals are always pleasant, melodious, occasionally even soothing. At their most emphatic, the instruments are never vicious, just a bit louder and more lively than in quieter moments, where they're sometimes mellow and sometimes elegant, at some points both.

For instance, Lacquer begins with a backing of strings punctuated by a sort of riff that resembles water drops. The beat sounds electronic and the band add a layer of distortion at points to make it all feel a touch more gritty. The vocals float on a cloud of melody, especially when the harmonies join in. It's a thoroughly nice song. You could take it home to your grandma.

And, sure, that may be as quiet and restrained as this album gets, but that doesn't mean it's alone. Vanishers follows a similar path but is surely even more laid back, especially with a guest female vocal. Lachesis is extra laid back as well, but it's really just an interlude. That's telling, though: the peaceful interlude sounds similar to a few of the actual songs.

And, even when the songs aren't quiet and restrained, that mindset still has hold. It's there on City Glaciers, a much bouncier and catchier song, mostly because of the rhythm section, led by the drums of Daniel Moilanen. It's in there on Behind the Blood too, which does the same but with a much heavier guitar. Rein is perhaps the heaviest and most emphatic song on the album and it's there as well.

Often these heavier songs are like Tool but without the overtly experimental edge. They're certainly progressive but not wildly experimental. Maybe we're better off going with Soen, as they're also Swedish, and more consistent to my thinking. It's hard to listen to songs like Flicker or Neon Epitaph, with Niklas Sandin's bass building the groove and the guitar working alongside it, without thinking of Tool or Soen.

It's hard not to like this album because it's so inherently likeable. It's a safe space, somewhere we can sit down and relax in the company of something enjoyable but not too challenging. However, even after four runs through and some more cherrypicking of favourite songs, it's not connecting with me on a level deeper than that. Of course, as they say, your mileage may vary. If it engages for you, add at least another point to my rating.

Hexvessel - Kindred (2020)



Country: Finland
Style: Psychedelic Folk Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 17 Apr 2020
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Here's something utterly sublime! I've been listening to this over and over for a few days now and it's still as fresh now as on my first time through, when I wanted to join in because it felt ritualistic and inviting. I didn't know what they were doing, but it felt like I should be part of it, because it would help to achieve something worthy. What I have no idea, but it feels right, because, even if this is often dark, it's never destructive.

Hexvessel describe what they do as "wyrd folk" and that's as appropriate as anything else I can come up with. The base is clearly in folk, mostly of the traditional English nature, though occasionally this sounds like the Mamas and the Papas on acid. While the band are Finnish, its leader is British, a gentleman called Mathew McNerney who sings and plays guitar. From his lead, they venture politely and confidently into occult rock, alt rock, prog rock, psychedelic rock, even roots rock, all with consistent success.

Every song here resonated with me and almost every song here, at one point during the last few days, was my favourite. I'm not sure that an order has settled into place yet and it may never. It may depend on my particular mood at any particular time. I've already woken up in the morning with different songs playing in my head, so I'll run through them all.

Billion Year Old Being blew me away. It's seven minutes, easily the longest song on the album but it does so much and it does it all effortlessly. It's a song of two halves. The first is rather like a theatrical occult rock band of the early seventies, with chanting, heavy organ and staccato riffs. After it's built to an instrumental crescendo, it transitions to the second half, which is folk, gentle even when the drums kick back in and a darkness hangs over it all.

Demian continues that but with a whole slew of layers and effects applied to render it much darker. It's much harder to be gentle while playing with fuzz and distortion and walls of urgency, but there are moments, even if they're hiding on the other side of a cloud peeking through on occasion.

Fire of the Mind goes back to gentle, with crystal clear picking and a viola that aches like a hurdy gurdy. This one's a vocal track, with McNerney at his most free but plaintive, almost bleeding out emotion. It's a cover of a song by Coil, but it's completely at home here and, like Johnny Cash did so often, they've frankly taken ownership. They may not have written it but it may be their song now.

Bog Bodies is gentle in a completely different way, like occult rock played as smooth jazz. Kimmo Helén, who contributed the viola on Fire of the Mind, brings in a gloriously smoky trumpet here. This is so laid back that it has almost no weight. I felt like I could easily balance it on a fingertip like a butterfly and, like a butterfly, it eventually catches a breath and floats off into the sky.

Phaedra sits at the heart of the album, with an ominous drum echoing a real power in the vocal. McNerney isn't gentle here; he's commanding, rather like a doomladen Nick Cave. "I have strength," he begins. "I fear nothing." What an opening statement! The sheer emphasis in play is helped by the song being bookended by very different instrumental interludes. Sic Luceat Lux is wild and experimental, mixing Jandek with Coil. Is that a bicycle bell? We should ask Antti Haapapuro, who's credited on "found sounds". However, Family, is a sliver of light in the darkness, peaceful acoustic folk guitar.

And that leads us into the final three songs, which play with gentleness in different ways. Kindred Moon, the title track, I guess, is elevated by what sounds like reeds thrashing a steel barn for percussion. McNerney croons as if that's the most natural sound in the world. The chorus is almost syrupy, soothing us as we "pray to your light, kindred moon". There's darkness here too, but it's epic darkness and the song is a ritual ward against it.

If I had to pick a favourite, which I really don't want to do, it's likely to be Magical & Damned. It's another gentle song that's ever as dark as it is light. It has a late Nick Cave piano-driven vibe, but with a far softer vocal than Phaedra, subtly teasing its dark truth rather than flaunting it, through a lyric that could have been written by Leonard Cohen.

Again McNerney captures us early. I couldn't quite grab the entire opening lines, but it's about hurricanes with female names being the deadliest and when swept away by you, "it feels good to die". It's achingly beautiful, especially when the chorus highlights a lament. "She's so beautiful and so magical... and damned." This song so calmly eviscerates me every time. It's seeped into my soul.

Given the unenviable task of following it and also wrapping up the album is Joy of Sacrifice, which title capably sums up the dualistic light and dark sounds of this album. It's another gentle song and another beautiful one, a backing vocal layering over the lead with incredible effect, reminiscent of Linda Perhacs. It's heartfelt and hypnotic and it's a suitably haunting way to leave us.

I hadn't heard of Hexvessel before, though McNerney did contribute a great guest vocal to the Me and That Man album I reviewed recently. I'll surely be picking up their back catalogue after this experience, though. The band were formed in 2009 and this is their sixth album, so there's plenty for me still to discover. I'm totally hooked, enough that I'll be utterly shocked if this doesn't turn out to be my album of the year.

Frankly, this is as close as I've come to giving a 10/10, which I refuse to do out of principle; I believe that a maximum can only fairly be given after at least five years of still sounding this damn good and remaining relevant. It may well get there, but I'm sure that I'll be adding it to my frequently replayed list, where it will fit well alongside the first couple of Leonard Cohen albums, as well as Joy Division and Susanna and the Magical Orchestra.

Now I just need to figure out how to stop listening to it so I can move on to review something else.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Cherie Currie - Blvds of Splendor (2020)



Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 28 Apr 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

It looks like Cherie Currie, best known as the lead vocalist and pianist for the legendary Runaways, got busy last year. Even though her first solo album came out as far back as 1978, it took her until 2015 to issue a follow up, a few albums with her twin sister Marie during that period notwithstanding. It seems strange that she'd suddenly reappear with not one but two new albums, but I'm happy to see new material.

In the absence of information to the contrary, these two albums technically came out last year, but this one only as a limited edition for Record Store Day in April. I'm reviewing it on its wide release, which features another three tracks, meaning fifteen on offer instead of twelve. The other album, for those eager to hear it, is The Motivator, recorded as a partnership with Brie Darling, known for her work with Fanny and American Girls, and it did see a full release in August of last year.

To complicate that further, it seems that this album was recorded quite some time ago, with a host of major collaborators, and was originally slotted for a release in 2010, soon after the film adaptation of her autobiography, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, but that never happened and it got bounced on down the road. I could easily see the goal as being to capitalise on a good moment in time and mount a long overdue comeback, but it seems that Currie's pretty happy with a different life as an award-winning chainsaw artist.

At fifteen tracks, this is a generous release, not just because it runs over fifty minutes but because it covers the musical spectrum, presumably to give new fans and old a good idea of just how versatile she can get. The opener, Mr. X is a rocker that gets our adrenaline pumping from moment one, but then we dip into classic glam rock with Roxy Roller, move into pop punk with You Wreck Me and add electronica for Black Magic. There's a soft rock ballad, a country pop cover and a full on grunge song. Eventually there's even a bit of reggae on What Do All the People Know?

I don't have details on which musicians Currie has to back her, but I do see a number of guests. The album opener, for instance, Mr. X, does a solid job at getting our adrenaline pumping immediately, an urgent guitar leading into a perky song. I believe the band behind her is pretty much Guns n' Roses, at least Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum, and the latter produced the album too. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins shows up on the title track. The closer, a cover of the Runaways classic, Queen of Noise, apparently features Australian singer/songwriter Brody Dalle, the Veronicas and, of all people, Juliette Lewis.

I also don't have details on just how many songs here are covers. Some are pretty obvious, though maybe not for listeners who might be a generation or two younger than me. Queen of Noise was the title track of the second album from the Runaways, which came out in 1977. Draggin' the Line is even older, as it's the Tommy James song from 1971. The Air That I Breathe may well be the most recognisable cover, originally recorded by Albert Hammond in 1972, but best known from the huge hit the Hollies had with it a couple of years later. Apparently Roxy Roller is a Sweeney Todd song (the Canadian band not the musical) and What Do All the People Know? is an eighties song by a band called the Monroes.

I wonder why Currie chose to cover so many songs, given that what I presume are originals sound fine, and why she chose to cover these. I wonder if her take on Draggin' the Line is a personal statement, given lyrics like "I feel fine. I'm talking peace of mind. I'm gonna take my time. I'm getting to good times." Neon Angel talks about a lot of what she went through. The Air That I Breathe is the oddest, because Allan Clarke's vocal on the Hollies version is so iconic. This is well done but it doesn't add anything.

Frankly, I prefer the originals, whether they're rockers like Mr. X; ballads like Shades, which she wrote with her son, Jake Hays; or unexpected grunge songs like Force to Be Reckoned With. It kicks in just as powerfully and in a rather similar way to Nirvana but gets quieter during the verses. Then again, Nirvana did that too. It's no rip-off, but it's another musical direction taken on an album full of them. I wonder who guested that time.

I quite liked this album and I appreciated Currie's versatility, though it's a little overdone. It surely does enough to warrant that potential comeback earlier in the decade, but I doubt that's the goal now and there's no movie in 2020 to tie it into. Now, it's a welcome release from a pioneer who has a surprisingly skimpy discography. She clearly still has what it takes and I'd have said the same thing even if none of the megastars she knows had showed up to help her out.

Atkins May Project - The Final Cut (2020)



Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2020
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

For those who don't know the name, Al Atkins was the original lead vocalist in Judas Priest, singing for them from 1969 until 1973 when he had to get a nine to five job to pay bills. He left before the recording of Rocka Rolla, so there are no albums for us to hear what the band sounded like with Atkins singing instead of his replacement, some dude called Rob Halford, but, much later, he recorded a solo version of Victim of Changes, which he co-wrote, and it sounds very good, different in many ways but still very good.

While he was gone from the world of music for a long while, he's been busy since returning in 1990. He put out a bunch of solo albums with a band named A.N.D. as his backing; sang for a band called Holy Rage, which featured ex-Al Atkins musicians; and teamed up with Paul May, guitarist for both A.N.D. and Al Atkins, for this band. This is their fourth album, but it comes six years after its predecessor, Empire of Destruction in 2014.

It sounds pretty good to me, but it also took me a little while to get into it. That's mostly because Atkins sounds old here, his voice filled with rasp and experience and hinting that he needs more breath. It's a highly lived in voice, which is no bad thing when it fits the material. On the title track, which opens up the album, I wasn't sure that it did, but as the album rolled on, I found myself more and more on board with it.

That's because he's at his best on slower, heavier songs where his voice is a stalking beast. On Buried Alive, he's utterly commanding and it's not hard to imagine him prowling the stage, owning the performance. What makes songs like these work so well is that Paul May does the same thing as a guitarist. Sure, the riff on Buried Alive is half inched from Iron Maiden's Wrathchild, merely played more like Black Sabbath, but he owns it. Most importantly, the two of them complement rather than clash when they both dominate at once.

I'd raise Iron Maiden for another reason too. Atkins is someone who owns an important spot in rock history but he was never an international superstar, putting him in a similar category to Paul Di'Anno. Clearly both had to deal with the fact that history moved on without them, but they both settled into making good music and I'm happy that both of them did so. The difference is that Di'Anno staked his sound in the NWOBHM era of the early eighties while Atkins is taking the heavy blues of the early seventies and looking forward from there.

There are a lot of seventies sounds here, from towering riffs reminiscent of Sabbath, Priest and often Saxon, to delicate guitarwork that reminds more of Wishbone Ash. How far is the intro to The Final Cut from the storming metal drive of Dead Mens Bones? The former would have fit on Wishbone Ash albums like Pilgrimage or Argus, while the latter, had it been released in the mid seventies, would have sat alongside Exciter and Overkill as a pioneer, paving the way for the speed and thrash metal of the early eighties.

Some of these songs sound great on a first listen, but every one of them is a grower. Perhaps the best is Stranger in a Strange Land, one more of those stalking songs where both Atkins and May dominate at the same time without a moment of treading on each other's toes. That applies to Masquerade too, the sheer power in these slower numbers that have a foot in heavy blues but are still completely and unashamedly metal leaving me with a huge smile.

It's great to see old school metal thriving right now. This was released on 28th April, only four days after new Cirith Ungol and Cloven Hoof albums, an unholy trio of worthy old school heavy metal releases, each of them doing a solid job in a very different way. And old school fans still talk about all modern music being crap? Listen to these three, folks, and hush your noise.