Friday, 19 July 2019

Zion Knight - Zion Knight (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2019
Sites: none

Here's a bit of a cheat, given that I'm only supposed to be reviewing 2019 releases here at Apocalypse Later and this album was recorded back in 1991. Well, it was never released, outside of a promo cassette, and it languished on some shelf until April this year, when it saw a long overdue release by 20th Century Music.

I hadn't heard about it until this morning's Raised on Rock radio show (on 10 Radio last night in the UK) when Chris Franklin, purveyor of all things melodic, played the opening track, Maiden Voyage. I liked the song and dug the story so I dug a little deeper. Zion Knight, who hailed from Florida, I believe, rather than the expected Jerusalem, given the name, were another one off band for vocalist David Mikael, the singer for MPG and regular name on other one off AOR releases for bands like Thunderbox, Presence, As Is, Tin House and more. He also plays bass and keyboards.

Frankly, I liked his bass work here, though he's a better singer. His voice has been compared to some of the best in his genre, often people like Eric Martin or Lou Gramm, and I can see that, but he also pulls out a little Dio on points in Rock Rules the Knight and some Sean Harris on Sweet Searcher. He's very good at what he does and, frankly, I just wish I could hear what he does better, because one reason why this may not have been released back in 1991 is that he's far too low in the mix.

While I liked the opener, I found that the album got more interesting as it ran on. What really sold me on Zion Knight was Cry of the Dove, a couple of songs into the album. I liked the whole song, including the heartfelt vocal, an adjective that's a good thing in AOR, but the overlays were gorgeous, at the beginning and at the end. The titular dove coos and frolics with what I think might be cymbals or some sort of keyboard flourish, with a dark bass underpinning them. It's a really neat sound and the guitar solo it sets up soars beautifully.

It didn't just sell me on the band but on their versatility as well. Sweet Searcher was the next standout for me, as it aims for real depth. It wasn't just David Mikael's voice that reminded me of Diamond Head but the way that the track was constructed and how the guitars of Roderick Gray-Lewis were eager to explore and build while he's singing. And I'm thinking Canterbury-era Diamond Head, by the way, when they were even more unfairly overlooked. Somehow it helps that it sounds like Zion Knight recorded this one outside in the rain. It's gorgeous.

No AOR band could survive back in 1991 without at least a pair of standout radio friendly singles and I'd suggest that Bad Disposition could be the first such here and Lady of My Dreams the follow up. Thirty years on, I'm starting to hear singles from this era show up on my local classic rock station and it wouldn't be a hardship to hear Bad Disposition three times a day.

The downsides are obvious from moment one. The production isn't great, even for 1991, let alone for 2019. The introduction, titled The Warrior, is told with cheesy language and an even cheesier voice. The drummer's name is Chip Micronus, which surely can't be real. This doesn't sound like the work of a drum machine, but Chip Micronus has to be either that or the villain in an especially bad episode of the Power Rangers.

And, of course, the record is 28 frickin' years late. I'm glad it's finally getting a release, even in a limited edition of 500 copies. But I'm glad to be hearing it and I hope you are too.

Mefitis - Despair (2019)

Country: China
Style: Progressive Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 19 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I have to admit that this EP leapt out for a number of reasons. For one, it features progressive black metal from Beijing, China, which had to be heard. For another, the demonic growling vibrato is provided by the same young lady who did the cover art, Rexco by name. And for three, Rexco aside, the band don't remotely look Chinese. Drummer Darian Kocmur also plays in Teleport, who are certainly appropriately named given that they're based in Slovenia, making his commute pretty tedious otherwise. And that leaves Allen Darling, surely the least Chinese name I can imagine, even with the prefix of Lucky, as it often has. He used to be the entire band.

This is Mefitis's debut EP, but Darling released a demo under that name back in 2017, called Nascence, and handled everything on it himself: the vocals, the guitars, the bass and the drum programming, quite probably the delivery of lunch during recording for good measure. I took a quick listen to that in preparation for this and quickly realised that the addition of other band members helped a great deal. Mefitis are deeper and more interesting when he doesn't have to do everything himself.

And they are both deep and interesting. This is a short EP, blistering along for the most part for twenty minutes, at which point it's done, but it does much of note along the way. Never mind the point a minute into opener Cetus when they shift between a few tempos seamlessly, what's going on behind the repeat of that thirty seconds later? There's a twanging that's only just in hearing, but is impossible to ignore, that sounds like Jew's harp. It comes back later, as do tempo changes, the instrumental section as far in again a real highlight and a very complex one too.

The beginning of Ecdysis, which means the shedding of an outer cuticle layer by animals who go in for that sort of thing, is gloriously intricate too. I was thrown back to bands like Mekong Delta who brought avant garde jazz into an extreme metal mindset back in the late eighties.

Desecrate is even more interesting. It starts out minimally, with Rexco like a demon creature recently escaped from a cage and ready to devour anyone or anything she encounters in the next five minutes. She has a wild and evilly dangerous voice and, while I have no idea what language she's singing, let alone what words, it's often easy to get caught up in what she's doing and forget there's music being played behind her. That music is far slower here, even when it gallops, and there are so many cymbals in play that surely some of them have to be bells.

That leaves Lotophagi, or Lotus Eaters, presumably meaning the tribe of lost addicts that Odysseus encountered when returning home from Troy, given that Cetus was a sea monster in Greek mythology. Of course, Mefitis was Roman not Greek, or rather pre-Roman as she was the goddess of poisonous vapours (foul-smelling gases of the earth) to the Samnites, who dominated central Italy in the years before the rise of Rome.

This one layers voices, demonic and clean, surely male and female too, and gets all melodic behind them. At the two and a half minute mark, everything goes quiet, a rumbling bass and a delicate guitar providing the eye in the storm that inevitably returns with a vengeance.

How this trio stay so tight when there are so many time changes, I have no idea. I presume it's a heck of a lot of practice. Having Darling on guitars and bass means that they can't have played live in the studio, of course. I wonder how many takes they took to knock out Lotophagi. The layering of the multiple voices helped it too, because, while I enjoyed Rexco's voice, it's really difficult to vary a delivery like that and that approach was getting old, even by that point.

I got a real kick out of this, but twenty minutes is probably a good length, as I'm not sure how I'd react to twenty more of similar material. I have a good deal of praise for the variety they snuck into the first twenty but I don't believe that a further twenty would help coherence. As it stands, I'm liking the ways they're finding to subvert their black metal, but I'm ready for it to get old as soon as that supply of subversion runs out.

I'd like to hear a full length album now just to see if they can keep this style interesting for forty minutes plus.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

人間椅子 - 新青年 (2019)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Yesterday, I discovered German cosmic prog rockers Dice, through their 21st studio album. Talk about late to the party! Well, I'm late again, because here's a Japanese band I'm discovering through, you guessed it, their 21st album. At least here I have an excuse, because unlike Loudness and Bow/Vow Wow, they don't seem to use the English language at all, presumably content with playing to a growing Japanese audience.

Their name (Ningen-Isu) translates to The Human Chair and is taken from the title of an Edogawa Rampo story from 1925, more recently reimagined into a manga by Junji Ito and also adapted into a 1997 movie. The album translates to New Youth, though I have no idea what it's aiming at. The band date back to 1987 and have only changed drummers in that time, the latest being Nobu Nakajima who joined in 2004. They're not new youth and they don't look like it (guitarist Shinji Wajima wears the attire of a literary master from the Meiji era, so late Victorian); bass player Kenichi Suzuki wears a Buddhist monk's robes and paints his head white; and drummer Nobu Nakajima dresses like a yakuza). Maybe the audience is the new youth.

It's hard to pigeonhole them, which is a good thing. They've been described as the Japanese Black Sabbath but I don't see a lot of that here. There's a very Tony Iommi riff halfway through the appropriately named 瀆神 (which I've seen translated as both God and Blasphemy), but that's about it. Maybe they used to be more doomladen in the past. The closest I heard to Sabbath otherwise was some bass work on 月のアペニン山 (Montes Apenninus) and, if we stretch through a level of abstraction, a riff or two on あなたの知らない世界 (or The World You Do Not Know) are reminiscent of Randy Rhoads from early Ozzy solo albums.

It starts out sounding pretty contemporary. Opening track 新青年まえがき (or Preface to New Youth) sounds like Rage Against the Machine should they try to be a classic metal band. 鏡地獄 (The Hell of Mirrors) slows down and adds a little bit of space rock. It's older school but with a modern feel, like an alternative band brought some Hawkwind into an alternative song. Then it's God/Blasphemy and the most common influence manifests itself, namely Judas Priest.

There's a lot of Priest on this album. 巌窟王 (The Count of Monte Cristo) has an acute Priest sound and so does 宇宙のディスクロージャー (or Disclosure by Universe). I have no idea what the subtle linguistic difference is between 地獄小僧 (Boy from Hell) and 地獄小僧 (Hell-Sent Child), but they're next to each other on the album and the latter is another Priest-infused track. The former, however, feels like it ought to be on the soundtrack of a Japanese biker movie. It growls with menace that may turn out not to be menace at all, just loud bikes.

いろはにほへと (or Even the Blossoming Flowers) shows up between the first two Priest-laden tracks and does something very different. It has that bouncy feel from the opener and underlines how Ningen-Isu are a power trio, because that's a very prominent bass from Kenichi Suzuki. It also has the only ethnic sounds that I caught anywhere on the album, with cymbals that sound quintessentially Japanese. The closest otherwise is some background woodblock sounds early in Montes Apenninus, but they could come from anywhere.

The other influence I found here ties to that power trio reference, because 暗夜行路 (A Dark Night's Passing) carries a real Budgie sound to it, just with a much lower voice from whichever band member handles vocal duties. He's not remotely trying to emulate Burke Shelley's voice even if the riffs could be leftovers from the first couple of Budgie albums. 無情のスキャット (well, Heartless Scat, says Google Translate), the eight minute epic final track, continues in a Budgie vein.

Clearly, after 21 albums, Ningen-Isu have developed their own sound, even if some of their influences are reasonably obvious. I enjoyed this album, which is mostly heavy and powerful. It speeds up at points but never becomes speed or thrash metal, just faster heavy metal. There's a progressive edge too that is most obvious on Montes Apenninus, a much quieter and introspective song that anything else on the album.

I've listened through this a few times now and it's starting to find some cohesion. Initially, it sounded more like a collection of decent tracks that Ningen-Isu might have recorded over the last decade but, over time, I found some commonality that tied it together. They just don't want to do only one thing and I'm hardly going to complain about that.

And, hey, I have twenty prior studio albums to explore if I can find them to see where how that sound developed.

Elder - The Gold & Silver Sessions (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

I've been getting things done today and it was instantly relaxing to return to my office, throw on some new Elder and start to chill before sleep. This isn't what we normally expect from the band and deliberately so. The label Blues Funeral Recordings have set up a PostWax project to challenge bands to attempt things they wouldn't usually do on their regular albums. That means that Elder got quiet.

This is instrumental psychedelic rock that's engaging but easy to listen to, not the much louder and heavier stoner/doom metal with vocals that's filled four highly regarded studio albums from them thus far. The name comes from a side project of multi-instrumentalist main man Nick DiSalvo, Gold & Silver and the cover turns those into the sun and the moon, opposites but somehow symbiotes. It's a different angle to Elder but what's telling is that, even so, it's still an impressive release.

There are only three tracks here on what they're calling an EP but, at well over thirty minutes, this is longer than many albums that I've reviewed of late. All are instrumental attempts to find grooves and create soundscapes, though they vary a good deal. The shortest takes up a mere five and a half minutes and the longest runs way past eighteen. They each have a different sound.

The first track is called Illusory Motion and that's a really apt title. I felt emphatically comfortable sat in my chair writing while the music took me somewhere else entirely. Eight minutes in, it becomes lively, suggesting that there's danger wherever we've ended up but it's all going to be fine. Don't worry. This is the most psychedelic track here and it's definitely a trip, but it's an enjoyable one, wherever it took me.

Im Morgengrauen is smoother still, flowing like a river for over half its running time. It appropriately starts out with echoing synths, given that Morgengrauen is the dawn. It's surprising to find Elder sound like an exotic Barry White number, but the guitar refuses to play that sultry game. The band have always been as progressive as psychedelic and this is very much the former rather than the latter. Stoner fans may dig this, but it's not stoner rock, it's instrumental prog in a laid back Pink Floyd way. Maybe it gets a little busier for Floyd later on, but hey.

Weißensee, presumably named for the district in Berlin, is very Tangerine Dream. The core of it is repetitive but it has little touches here and there to keep it interesting and the track builds. Patience is a virtue! It evolves into something more like a Grateful Dead jam and then, around the sixteen minute mark, it kicks in with the church organ and then rocks out for a few minutes to the close. It's the perfect way to energise me and make me want to play the whole thing again.

I wonder how this will be received by Elder fans, of whom there are plenty nowadays after Lore put them emphatically on the map and Reflections of a Floating World made a lot of end of year lists and escalated their profile. The Gold & Silver Sessions is not what they usually do, but it's compatible with it and, in its quiet way, it's pretty inventive. I think it'll work just fine for the diehards and bring some more fans on board too. Good stuff is good stuff.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Dice - Yes-2-5-Roger-Roger (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jul 2019
Sites: Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

I've reviewed a lot of albums this year from well-established bands, names I know well, who just haven't recorded anything in forever. The first album in ten years, the first this millennium, the first since I was born... it seems like they're expanding the gap each time out. Well, I have to call Dice as close to the opposite of that as can be found. They're well-established, as they were founded as far back as 1974 and haven't lost a founder member yet, but that's about it.

I'd never heard of them before, which continues to underline just how much I don't know about German rock and metal, even though I've thought of myself as a fan for decades, not just Rammstein and the Scorpions but Warlock, Can, Destruction, Uli Jon Roth, Sieges Even, Tangerine Dream and many more. Well, I've been really schooled this year, having finally discovered bands as not new and not minor as Lucifer's Friend, Iron Savior, Oomph!, Illuminate and, now, Dice. They're certainly not new, having released an album every single year since 1997: twenty of them studio releases and three live.

They tend to be labelled as prog rock, which is fair, but there's a strong element of space rock here too, albeit not in the way old school Hawkwind fans might expect. Dice are more like Pink Floyd if Pink Floyd were aliens. Or, perhaps as the title of their 2004 album suggests, If the Beatles Were from Another Galaxy, but there's certainly a lot more Floyd here than the Fab Four.

This is like Floyd's Wish You Were Here, not quite so laid back but looser, less cynical and with stranger vocals, Christian Nóvé's accented and oddly disconnected English making him seem like a shaman from otherspace who's floating over a lake of liquid guitar chords waiting for us to locate his frequency. He also drifts in and out, because each of the five tracks proper here run over ten minutes and there's plenty of instrumental opportunity.

I was a little put off by the experimental intro and that ghostly voice on Alive in the Galaxy but, by the end of the track, I was hooked. I know that I need to throw this onto headphones in the wee hours of the morning as the music swirls around, drifting from speaker to speaker and back. If the goal is to make us feel like we're out there in the great beyond, seeing things, as Roy Batty would have it, that you people wouldn't believe, then they're certainly on the right lines.

It's patient stuff, the drums of Tommy Tomson adding texture to the tracks rather than setting a pace. The most overt instrument in play is the guitar of Peter Viertel, which spirals off wherever he wants it to go, even during times when Nóvé is singing. It feels like the other band members can choose to follow him or not, as if they're a rock band supporting a jazz guitarist who's firmly in charge. Arguably, it's Nóvé's band, because he provides the bass and keyboards in addition to the vocals, and writes and produces, but, listening dry, it's Viertel's show.

Some songs are jazzier than others too, Alive in the Galaxy playing more as space rock but Living Day to Day often reminiscent of a jazzy cross between Steely Dan and Jethro Tull, with very lively cymbals. Black Stars feels yet more psychedelic than its predecessors, not just because of the spaced out keyboards but because of a late sixties pop influence, even though it ends up in familiar territory soon enough. Cybersky carries an industrial sound to keep things even more interesting.

I liked this a lot but a little more as an experience than a musical album. Suggesting that an album feels longer than it is usually tends to mean that it drags. That's not the case here, even though this is a mere snip shorter than an hour but feels like it sucked me in for a week and dropped me back home mind expanded and body recovering. That's a good thing. It's an album well worth losing yourself inside.

Kilonova - Omnicide (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Oh, this takes me back. Kilonova are a new band, playing interesting thrash out of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I've sunk a few pints there in my time, just not during the lifetimes of these band members, judging from their photo. They were formed as recently as 2017 and this is their debut EP, after a couple of singles, one of which is also present here.

I say interesting because the sound doesn't quite stay where I expected it to. Initially, kicking off with Descent / Straight to Hell, this is clearly old school thrash and not just because the EP sounds like it was produced in 1990. I heard a lot of stuff like this back then, whether live, on demos I'd picked up or in sessions on the Friday Rock Show. Kilonova would surely have competed in the Rock War, had they been together (and alive) back then and I think they'd have done well with Blood in the Water, their epic track here.

The most obvious diversion from old school thrash is the shouting voice of Ellen Hill. She looks like the sort of girl you could take home to see mum, albeit not in her stage attire, but she can scream and shout with the best of them and could easily land a job fronting a hardcore band. There's some early Exodus in her voice and it's pretty substantial, but she's able to seamlessly shift to other styles as needed.

The band don't always stay at high speed either, though they start out that way with Straight to Hell and Hang the Hangman, two blistering three minute tracks. It's the latter that slows down a little for the chorus to suggest an acute Toranaga influence. That's all the more overt on Own Enemy, which kicks off with a nice acoustic intro (and a very prominent bass underneath it from Joe Bambrick), finds a gloriously simple but effective riff which the band stubbornly and achingly refuses to speed up, and ends with some thoughtful intricacy.

Blood in the Water, at six and a half minutes, does some of the same but it mixes things up even more. Hill sings, shouts and screams; Bambrick gets another good prowling run; drummer Steve Rouse elevates proceedings with emphasis in the midsection and guitarist Jonny Sloan gets to show off in slow and fast parts. It's a very rounded song that ably showcases what this band can do.

The biggest problem this EP has is that, coming up on seventeen minutes, it only has one song left. Ivory Tower is another good one, with some ramped up sections, to bring us home truly energised. Kilonova tend to be described as thrash metal and they're certainly that but there's heavy and power metal in here too, across a variety of tracks, and they do all of it well.

I remember fondly a number of nothern bands from the late eighties whom I followed from their demos and saw live as often as I could: names like Metal Messiah, Catharsis, Darkened and others. None of them really made it big, an album and a Friday Rock Show session for the former being as close as they got, but they were always entertaining. I'd see Kilonova in the same bucket and, if I wasn't six thousand miles away now, I'd be checking the listings to see how far I need to travel to see them play next week. Bradford? Leeds? York?

Now, I can only hope that they outlast some of those bands and stay together long enough to put an album out! I'm looking forward to it because I want to see these guys develop.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Razorblades Terror - Return of the Crown (2019)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Technical Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter

I have a love/hate relationship with the brutal end of death metal, finding that a lot of it finds an interesting tone but does little more than drag it out for however many tracks are on any particular album or even a career. It might sound great on a first listen but it gets old really quickly for me, unlike melodic death metal which can change up from track to track if need be and add in all sorts of textures as it does so.

The closest I've got of late to brutal death metal that I really like is an Indonesian band by the name of Razorblades Terror, who play technical death metal. What that means is that they play with a brutal back end that's fast and downtuned but with a front end that's dominated by shredding guitarwork. The vocals are deep and growly, but are surprisingly versatile.

Most of this album is done at great speed. Fafa sets a relentless pace on the drums for Borky's bass to track. Whenever Tom pauses his growls, Dwy's fingers go dancing and we have frantic melody over frantic backing. On its own, that's pretty cool and I dig the sound.

But that isn't all that Razorblades Terror do and it's the rest that makes them special. For one thing, even though they're more brutal than melodic in tone, they construct their songs like melodeath bands. They introduce some variety on the opener, Binary of Gold, which follows a minute of blitzkrieg with a spoken word section and ends with a sort of choral crescendo that I presume is really done with keyboards.

Suckcial Media is what caught my attention. It's frantic, like most of this band's songs, but it gets much more varied than I expected. There are parts in the middle that transform into heavy power metal, with a slower approach, melodic riffing and more of that choral thing. And, as always, whatever goes on with the band, as fast and deep and brutal as they get, you can be sure that the guitarist is noodling along at high speed on his fretboard.

Dwy does this so much that there are points where he's still going as one song shuts down on him, so that he has to immediately carry on on the next one from where he left off. If there wasn't a pause between Suckcial Media and Racism Culture, I'd have thought they were the same song. This approach could easily have led to the album becoming one long repetitive track, but little touches of variety elevate the material.

The onslaught pauses in Racism Culture, for instance, for a lovely creeping bass run, something that happens in Death Prophercy too, among other points. Another is during a staccato section in Corps of Robot that highlights how capable each band member is, including whoever's handling the keyboards. If we doubted that there were keyboards, they get more obvious on Particle of Throne because there's clearly a piano in play and handled classically too. That returns for Death Prophercy and especially for Outro the Crown, which is an instrumental outro.

I enjoyed Return of the Crown a lot, finding that it energised me with its speed and brutality but kept my attention with its guitarwork and variety. It's probably important that Tom's voice didn't annoy me the way that a lot of brutal death metal vocalists do. He doesn't do anything new or ambitious, but he mixes things up a little by setting the tempo as effectively as the drummer.

The most obvious downside, for those who don't find this style repetitive, is the fact that the band's command of the English language, in which they sing, isn't particularly great. Of course, I have the same problem here in Phoenix, because most people can't conjure up coherent sentences any more, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to make of song titles like Particle of Throne, Binary of Gold or Corps of Robot. What's a Saliva Dealer and what's Candle Philosophy? I'm not sure that these things mean what they think they mean.

It really doesn't matter much, because Tom's vocals are not designed to be particularly intelligible, so confusedly looking over the track listing is about as problematic as it gets. No, that's not how Death Prophercy should be spelled. The catch is that, when Tom does appear to get intelligible, it doesn't work. The chorus on Suckcial Media sounds very much like "Everyone is daughter". I presume it isn't.

But hey, if that's all I can raise as a negative here, you know this is an impressive album! It's well written, well produced and well performed and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.