Monday 15 January 2024

Scanner - The Cosmic Race (2024)

Country: Germany
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jan 2024
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Scanner from their excellent debut album, Hypertrace, back in 1988. They're another of many German heavy/power metal bands but they're one of the first, because they started out in 1977 as Reinforce, changing to Lions Breed in 1982—who released one album—and eventually Scanner in 1986. However, this is only their seventh studio album, for reasons I can't fully explain. As far as I can tell, they've never actually split up, though they have completely changed the line-up behind founder guitarist Axel Julius more than once.

They just took long breaks, I think, so this arrives no fewer than nine years after The Judgement, which showed up thirteen years after Scantropolis. I haven't heard those two, but this only seems like a strong release to make up for lost time for a few tracks, perhaps until Warriors of the Light three songs in. After that, it's still decent, but it loses the sort of strength it needed to keep fans happy after so many years.

Initially, it's great. The Earth Song doesn't reach Warp 7 speeds, the track which opened up their debut, but it's an agreeably fast one. I actually remember Scanner being faster than they are, on the basis of tracks like that one. In 1988, thrash metal was my go to genre with speed metal right behind it, so I'd have eaten up songs like Warp 7, even if the rest of the album was a tad slower, in more of a power metal style. I'm all for that pace in 2024 too, but The Earth Song has more going for it than just speed. There's also a tasty guitar opening and a neat chanting section late on.

Just like their debut, things slow down after that but I'm more open to that now than I was then. Face the Fight is a real anthem of a song, high energy power metal with a hook-laden chorus that we're singing along with on our first time through. Warriors of the Light follows suit, maybe a tad less effectively because of a weaker midsection, but still very effective indeed. At this point, I was totally sold on this new Scanner, but they can't quite maintain that sort of stellar opening.

I say this new Scanner, because it's another mostly new line-up. Julius is still there, of course, as he has been throughout. Greek vocalist Efthimios Ionannidis is the only other member who's been in the band long enough to have performed on their prior album, having joined in 2003. Bassist Jörn Bettentrup is six years into his run with the band, but this is his first recording with them. Second guitarist Dominik Rothe and drummer Sascha Kurpanek arrived in 2023, presumably as a package deal, given that they've both played for Marauder and Taskforce Toxicator.

I should add that both those bands play thrash so I'd say that this material must feel slow to Rothe and Kurpanek, even with a few fast sections here and there, like the opener to Scanner's Law. It's fair to say that there are a number of points where the latter is the fastest aspect to the band, on that song particularly. Of course, I wish they'd speed up a bit more in general, but they play power metal well. Nothing quite matches Face the Fight in the anthemic chorus department, but a bunch of other tracks do try, Scanner's Law among them.

Others fall a little short for me. Dance of the Dead has its moments, but it doesn't seem to be too sure about what it wants to be. It starts out with a Dio vibe, before finding another big chorus, but there's some grind in between the verses. Each section works, but they don't all work together. A New Horizon kicks off with some lovely guitar, turning an Outlaws-esque riff into a layered power metal setup, but it falls into routine. It's the song I wanted to speed up the most, even if I liked its slower guitar. I liked the folk vibe midway through closer The Last and First in Line but the rest of the song around it isn't quite as enticing.

The most frustrating song is Space Battalion, again one that moves through a number of sections that all work individually but somehow not together. The reason for the frustration is that it kicks off relying on a rather well known riff that's lifted from Megadeth's Symphony of Destruction. It isn't quite the same, and it's a much busier song around that riff, but it's so recognisable that I'm singing along with Dave Mustaine before I realise that he's not there.

If I'm sounding acutely negative here, I don't mean to. I enjoyed this album and it's great to hear something new from Scanner. I remember Hypertrace and enjoyed its follow-up, Terminal Earth in 1989, but I don't believe I've heard the four albums in between that pair and this one. I should, not least because of the variance in line-ups. It seems that at least one of them had a female vocalist. However, it promises much for three neatly different tracks and the rest of the album simply can't live up to that promise.

Greta van Fleet - Starcatcher (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Jul 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Two thoughts struck me quickly the first time I heard this, the third album from the Frankenmuth, Michigan rockers. One is that it's good and consistently so. The other is that it isn't a patch on its predecessor, The Battle of Garden's Gate. Those two thoughts stayed with me through a second, a third and a fourth listen. Everything sounds good, from the opener, Fate of the Faithful, which is a strong way to start, to Farewell for Now, which is just another song rather than a memorable epic that closes everything out. However, not once did this awe me in the way that the previous album often did.

Fate of the Faithful plays up the Led Zeppelin comparison that has hung over the band's shoulders like an albatross, as if they're leaning into it now instead of trying to fight it. Last time out, I heard a lot of Geddy Lee in the vocals of Josh Kiszka and other influences as unusual as world music from Africa. Here, it's mostly Zep, Kiszka reminding of Robert Plant in more ways than just flow. Sacred the Thread opens up how John Bonham would. Meeting the Master opens up how Page would. It's all there in the details of the songs, not just their sweeps.

On The Battle of Garden's Gate, the most overt influence from Zeppelin was in the maturity of the songwriting, something that still leaps out whenever my local classic rock station plays them and I realise all over again how mature they were, trawling in wildly different sounds to use as they put together a serious body of work in a such a short time. Here, most of this has roots in that body of work, building new songs from its sounds.

What that means is that, while every one of these ten songs does sound like Zep, it doesn't follow that Starcatcher sounds like a Zep album. It doesn't, because it's not remotely as diverse. There's a little folk here in some of Josh or Jake's quiet moments and no discernible world music at all. It seems fair to say that every one of these ten songs works with the same sonic template instead of searching for a new one each time and finding it.

That lack of diversity this time may be why all these songs sound good but none of them stand out in the way that Broken Bells, Tears of Rain or The Weight of Dreams did on the previous album, to name just three. I'd call out Sacred the Thread as my favourite track, as the vocal melodies are so effortless and so effective that the entire band falls into a wonderful groove. Fate of the Faithful is up there too but that's probably my entire favourites list right there in two songs.

That doesn't mean that anything sucks. Drop the needle anywhere on this album, whether at the start of a track or just throw me in halfway and I'm going to be listening through the whole thing again a couple of times, enjoying every single track. In other words, this isn't a bad album; it's just not its predecessor and that's a bigger problem than it perhaps should be. It meant that, while I enjoyed another impressive ten tracks from Greta van Fleet, I couldn't quite lose an abiding sense of disappointment.

Is that fair? I don't have a problem with bands effectively borrowing another band's sound if they create good music out of it. I've reviewed a couple of bands here at Apocalypse Later who started out as tribute bands, but evolved to the point where they released new music that naturally took on the flavour of the covers they'd been playing. Of course, Blind Golem's A Dream of Fantasy has Uriah Heep at its heart. Of course, Fragile sound like Yes. I don't believe that Greta van Fleet were ever a Led Zeppelin tribute band, but it's easy to imagine that they were and they evolved to write their own music in that style. That seems fair to me.

But is it fair to be disappointed by an otherwise excellent album just because it doesn't reach the scarily high bar set by its predecessor? I'm in two minds about that. Had I not heard The Battle of Garden's Gate, I'd surely think more of this one. However, it doesn't do a lot of what made the last album so outstanding and that would hold true even if this was the first thing I'd ever heard from Greta van Fleet. So I'll leave it with that thought. It's good stuff. I enjoyed all ten songs and did so just as much on my fourth time through as my first. I'm giving it a highly recommended 8/10. That said, it's also a step backward for this band, a reminder that not everyone can hit the peaks every time out and that maybe they've lost track of why they're such a great band.

Friday 12 January 2024

Magnum - Here Comes the Rain (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 12 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

For fans of classic British rock, the second week in January every other year has become when the new Magnum album will drop and they delivered once again this year, following 2018's Lost on the Road to Eternity, 2020's The Serpent Rings and 2022's The Monster Roars. Sadly, this year's album was overshadowed by the death of founder member and perennial songwriter Tony Clarkin a mere five days before its release date. He's been a fixture throughout my musical life, as Magnum were one of the first bands I heard when I stumbled onto rock and metal in 1984 through The Friday Rock Show and, courtesy of their album Chase the Dragon, then a fixture on that show, were also one of my early favourites.

That was their third and this is their twenty-third, if we exclude the two by Hard Rain that Clarkin and Bob Catley released during the brief gap between the two incarnations of Magnum, but it's a strong one, from the very beginning. I gave its two predecessors an 8/10 and this is an even easier 8/10, surely my favourite of the three. It touches on each of the things that Magnum do incredibly well and so it works not just as an album but also as a reminder to anyone who hasn't heard them in far too long that they can still do everything they used to do and just as well.

The first three tracks highlight that wonderfully. Run into the Shadows is a lively rocker with just a hint of edge to Clarkin's guitar and highly recognisable melodies in Catley's vocals. I enjoyed it on a first play but it's grown on me nicely with more listens. The title track grabbed me immediately, though, with that slow but powerful groove that's pure Magnum and the effortless way it prowls forward is quintessentially them too. Some Kind of Treachery slows down further as a ballad, led by Catley's glorious voice. It's not as crystal clean as it used to be way back in the day; the passage of decades has added a little grit but that doesn't hurt his delivery of ballads because it gives him a little more emotional emphasis.

I liked all three of these, the title track the most, and I liked After the Silence too, another rocker, after them, but the album elevated for me with Blue Tango, which is when I knew this was likely to be another 8/10. There are ten tracks here all told and they fall naturally into sections of four, three and three for me. Those first four are a strong way to kick off the album, reminding us of what Magnum do and do better than anyone else. The next three serve as serious emphasis, upping the ante a little with magnificent effect.

Blue Tango is an obvious highlight, a heavy song for Magnum built on a glorious driving riff that's right out of the Deep Purple playbook. It's rooted in good old fifties rock 'n' roll, not just bulked up by guitar but also the keyboards of Rick Benton, who channelled Jon Lord for this one. I love heavy seventies organ and it's great to hear it deepen a song like Blue Tango. The Day He Lied is another emotional song relying on what has always been their strongest aspect, how they set slow grooves effortlessly into motion and build them with characteristic melodies. This riff is exquisitely simple, just a few notes but, when Magnum play it, it's like the hills and valleys of a whole nation distilled down to its purest essence.

And then there's The Seventh Darkness, just about defeating Blue Tango to be my favourite song here. It's certainly the jauntiest on offer, kicking off with a sassy trumpet by Nick Dewhurst which continues to punctuate the song for an elegant sense of emphasis. That's a highlight but so is the saxophone of Chris Aldridge that duets joyously with Tony Clarkin's guitar in the midsection. It's a pristine rocker, this one a little faster than usual, albeit not as driving as Blue Tango.

And then there's the final set of three songs that I believe stand alone, just like every track here, but also fall into what feels like a thematic section. Broken City begins with distant explosions, as if we're in a war zone, and its story is told mostly through voice, the guitar replaced by strings and a tasty harp. There are no clues in the lyrics as to which city Catley is singing about, which is surely deliberate, as it continues that way through the final two songs, I Wanna Live and Borderline. It's all of them, even though the latter opens with a middle eastern flavour.

I Wanna Live is quintessential Magnum pomp with another earworm chorus and a wonderful solo from Benton's keyboards late in the song. Borderline is punchier and oddly seems reminiscent of Oasis in the vocal melodies, but, appropriately enough, it has some excellent and prominent solos from Clarkin on what may well be the final track that we'll ever hear from him. It wasn't planned, of course, especially as I believe his passing was sudden and unexpected, but it's touching anyway.

I have no idea if Magnum will continue without him. Musicians have come and gone over the years and that's par for the course for a band who have been around over half a century, but it's hard to imagine them without either Clarkin or Catley, who have been there throughout. Given that most of their songs were written either entirely or primarily by Clarkin, it's especially tough to imagine what new songs might sound like without him at the helm. However, if this is it for new material, I have to say that they've left a magnificent body of work for any new fan to discover. RIP, sir.

Metal Church - Congregation of Annihilation (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Metal Church's previous studio album proper, Damned If You Do, was the first album I reviewed at Apocalypse Later, on New Year's Day six years ago, and it was a great way to start, as a high point in their already stellar career. Since then, all we've seen from them is a strange compilation, From the Vault, which was decent but, given how it was built, an inevitably patchwork affair. That's not because they've been sitting on their hands, though. There's a very good reason for a long period of inactivity and that's the untimely death of vocalist Mike Howe, in 2021. RIP, sir.

Howe was a powerful singer who fit the Metal Church style perfectly, even though he was always up against it because of whose boots he was filling. Original vocalist David Wayne was one of the most recognisable vocalists in metal at the time and nobody's ever quite managed to match him. Howe was able to sing in the same style without being forced into copying him and he brought an impressive new era to the band. Both of them are seriously missed. And, of course, that just puts any new singer into an even harder situation. Not only does he have to follow Wayne but he also has to follow Howe.

That new singer is Marc Lopes, who's also the current singer for Ross the Boss and Let Us Prey. on top of a four year stint with Meliah Rage. I'd found him a little much on the most recent album for Ross the Boss, Born of Fire, and Let Us Prey is a metalcore band, but he seems to be very much at home in Metal Church. He reminds of Howe a little more than Wayne, but he's obviously paid lots of attention to both while not trying to mimic either. He's clearly confident here, delivering some sustained power screams on the title track and Pick a God and Prey that underline why they hired him to begin with.

Coincidentally, those two are highlights, after a decent opener, Another Judgement Day, that never quite manages to grab me. Congregation of Annihilation has the first earworm chorus and the latter opens just like the band always should, with that patented combination of chug and power that they made their own long ago. It always boggles my mind how effortlessly they deliver power. When thrash bands slow down to do this, they sound like they're wussing out and I can't wait for them to speed back up. On a Metal Church song, it's the most powerful thing ever. The same applies to the mellow section on Children of the Lie. When other bands do this, they lose their power. When this band does it, they remain just as powerful as they always are.

Lopes is in playful mode on Children of the Lie, moving from one speaker to the other and back as he spits out lyrics. Some of my favourite tracks this time feature that playful mindset, especially a bonus track, My Favorite Sin, because the playfulness there isn't just Lopes, in probably his finest performance on this album, but also the guitars of Rick van Zandt and Kurdt Vanderhoof. This one gets seriously jaunty for a power metal song. Why this is a bonus track, I'm not sure, because the album runs just under fifty minutes with this and the excellent Salvation, which close things out a lot more effectively than All That We Destroy, which would technically be the closer otherwise.

I'm wary of calling out any other personal highlights, because this is a grower of an album, so the tracks I'd call out now may end up not being the ones that stay with me most. It's probably safe to place Pick a God and Prey above everything else, but what follows is likely to change, because this wasn't an immediate album for me, growing substantially on repeat listens. Many of the growers come midway and late in the album, as the more immediate material comes quickly, after the odd opener that still hasn't impressed itself on me.

Me the Nothing and Making Monsters at the heart of the album are two strong growers, as is All That We Destroy. They didn't leap out on my first time through, but started to make their case on a second and felt strong by a third. In between is a something rather different, Say a Prayer with 7 Bullets, which is a bouncy creature indeed, sounding rather like Metal Church covering an AC/DC track that we've never heard before. I'm not sure why that works so well, but it does.

And so, after four times through, I think I need to move on to my other review for the day. This is a new Metal Church, with a new lead singer, but it's still fundamentally the old Metal Church with a recognisably old Metal Church sound. Lopes fits in well and I see no reason why the fans shouldn't adopt him immediately. As always, the power this band effortlessly generates is what makes them special and it's here just as much as it always has been. This may not be Damned If You Do, let alone The Dark, but it's not a bad follow-up at all and it's a very good one indeed if we factor in what's happened between them.

Thursday 11 January 2024

Technology of Death - Skutočný nepriateľ (2024)

Country: Slovakia
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

From something highly unexpected to something acutely familiar. I've never heard Technology of Death before, because this is their debut album, but I've heard this brand of thrash metal plenty of times. They hail from Slovakia, where they formed in 2019, and they don't do a lot that could be called original, but they do it very well indeed and it's one of the particular brands of metal that I can simply never have enough of: fast thrash with clean but rough vocals.

They start us out by giving us a false sense of security, because the intro, inevitably entitled Intro, is a minute of intricate acoustic guitar duet, and then the first track proper, Nenávisť, begins with the sort of repetitive chug that gives me sinking feelings. Clearly the guitarists here, Šuro and Andy, are highly capable, but I wondered about whether they'd speed up or keep this a chug fest. It's an entire minute before drummer Rasťo ups the pace and fortunately they mostly stay at the faster speed. When they slow down, it's more for reasons of dynamics than to try to make the pit churn.

The vocals come from bassist Tomáš, who probably thinks of himself as a bassist more than a lead vocalist, but he spits out lyrics in Slovak with admirable attitude and urgency. There's not a lot of polish on his voice but his rough rhythmic delivery works perfectly with this style of thrash, a fast but straightforward approach that's guaranteed to clean out your system, leaving you knackered but also rejuvenated. This often felt very German to me, with their ruthless efficiency and rough delivery, Kreator or Sodom generally speaking but with Destruction coming out too in the guitar solos. It doesn't shock to find out that the first track title, Nenávisť, translates to Hate.

I liked the first three tracks—Nenávisť, Koniec (The End) and T.O.D. (presumably just Technology of Death)—but Depresia felt like a step up with a gorgeous riff and a nice drop into a bass solo, with a just as nice shift back up into top gear again, and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath following it very well. That's not the cover that we expect it to be, by the way; it's an original song that merely adopts a thoroughly recognisable title for no apparent reason. These are the sort of blistering songs that make me wish I was three decades younger and more able to dive into the pit and lose myself for three and a half emphatic minutes.

Skutočný nepriateľ is strong too, firmly reminding that this isn't all rooted in Teutonic thrash. The vocals never sound like John Connolly, but the music behind them often reminded me of Nuclear Assault, that punky crossover edge on top of technical thrash. Of course, as I type that, this track shifted firmly into Iron Maiden territory, so it's probably fair to say that there's no obvious single influence here. And that's a good thing. This may sound familiar generally rather than conjuring up some sort of Slovakian spin on thrash metal, but it's still accomplished stuff that feels like it's effortless but still meaningful for the four musicians who founded the band and still comprise its line-up today.

So this sounds great to me. If you're a thrash fan generally, you're going to dig this. I like it here in a studio recording and Technology of Death sound precisely like the sort of band I want to stumble into a club and hear on stage. Trust me, I'm not going to be propping up the bar while they're on. I think the telling questions are going to come down to how much you value originality and how well it's all going to stick in the brain. I'm a big fan of originality and I'm not finding any here, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing because the musicianship is excellent and the effect is pristine. So, it falls to how memorable the songs are and that's not something I can answer yet. Ask me in a few days.

Whether they do or not, it wouldn't shock me to find myself coming back to this. It's fast, powerful and uncompromising. It's also highly consistent without the songs blurring into each other. This is the sort of thing I often throw on to cleanse my palate after an underwhelming release or if I need to reset after an unexpected gem. This is the sort of album that steals my focus away from what's stuck in my brain and also gifts me what energy I need to shift onto something else. I'll also run it by my son too, because this is the sort of thing he loves to listen to while he's walking home from work. I think he's going to dig this one too.

Hexvessel - Polar Veil (2023)

Country: Finland
Style: Psychedelic Folk Rock/Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 22 Sep 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tumblr | Twitter | YouTube

Well, here's something that I totally didn't expect. My last experience with Hexvessel was with an album called Kindred in 2020, which became my Album of the Year, just nudging out Solstice. Both of those albums were folk music, though former took that into psychedelic rock but the latter into progressive rock. It's a haunting album and I've gone back to it often since, as well as checking out a few odd earlier tracks on YouTube. I haven't listened to earlier albums yet, perhaps with a little fear that they might not be up to Kindred's incredibly high standard.

Well, this follow-up, their sixth studio album, is hard to compare because it adopts their style into a completely different genre, namely black metal, and it's a fascinating shift that I'm still coming to terms with. The black metal is in guitars, now exclusively Mathew McNerney's domain because I don't see Jesse Heikkinen in the line-up, which are no longer acoustic psychedelic folk but a full on wall of sound bleakness. The change is from pastoral meadow or maybe sparse desert to nighttime blizzard, literally day to night. However, neither the vocals nor the drums follow suit, except for an anomalous couple of moments.

That means no blastbeats, except for Eternal Meadow and Homeward Polar Spirit, which are both as frantic as we expect from black metal drumming. Otherwise, Jukka Rämänen keeps a slow beat, which fits the bleakness but carries a little more inherent warmth. It fits reasonably well, because it means we pay attention to mood more than we might usually for black metal and there is some variation there. It also forces us to slow down while we listen, which helps us pay closer attention to the voice, which delivers lyrics rather than serving as another musical instrument.

And yes, that means no harsh vocals, except for the very end of Older Than the Gods, where there are hints at something harsh. This is less successful to my thinking, because these approaches are almost mutually exclusive. What made McNerney's vocals special on Kindred was how much sheer nuance he was able to infuse into songs. Even when other instruments did something interesting, I was always listening to the words he was singing and feeling them in the way he felt them. It was a highly immersive storytelling technique and individual words carried powerful meaning. Here, he seems to do the same thing, but I just couldn't hear that nuance. I mostly couldn't hear words. The lyrics may be as meaningful but I couldn't back that up or give examples.

So the overall effect is very different. What preserves from the psychedelic folk sound is a strong sense of ritual. It was easy to fall into rhythms and flows and those remain powerful, if not of the same level of impact. McNerney's voice stands out best on Crepuscular Creatures, where all that nuance is still evident, but A Cabin in Montana is the track that easily carries the most impactful groove because the beat works perfectly with the voice. It's mostly on these two songs that I was able to catch lyrics. "Who speaks to the world?" "Freedom!"

Elsewhere, I like that overall effect as a sound but not how it plays out over the whole album. It's fascinating to hear what I still think of as psychedelic folk music drenched in feedback and with an entirely clean voice almost battling it out for dominance with an abrasive guitar. However, over a full album, this is generally too opaque, too distant and too dense, except in rare moments, like a snatch of something special at the very end of Listen to the River, as the wall of sound fades away and we hear what was behind that curtain.

Of course, I have to wonder if this is a one-off experiment or an indication of where Hexvessel are going. As the former, it's certainly interesting and, on occasion, it works rather well. Some tracks continue to grow on me, even if I have to pay serious attention to figure out why. Ring is one, with some excellent guitarwork underneath the wall of sound. As the latter, though, it seems unlikely to me that this approach will work long term. It's inherently limited and, as such it's missing a lot of what I find special in this band. By a lot, I mean far too much. I guess only time will tell.

Wednesday 10 January 2024

Chimeras - Silent Cries in the Stifling Haze (2024)

Country: Hong Kong
Style: Atmospheric Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Jan 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Weibo | YouTube

I've only reviewed one album from Hong Kong thus far at Apocalypse Later, from a one-man post-black metal project called Voyage in Solitude, so it's about time I reviewed another. This is a band, who put out a demo and a single in 2018 but are debuting at the full length here. They play doom metal with an aching atmospheric mood but in a way that isn't always as slow as we might expect. Also, both lead vocalists are female, one lead and one backing, but one sings clean and the other harsh, depending on what a particular song needs in a particular moment.

The lead singer is Fraise Tam and she sings entirely clean on Devoidness. This is elegant doom that builds patiently with quietness and spoken vocals until crunch arrives two minutes in, even then a crunch that's tempered by a soft piano melody over the top. The song is slow and Tam's vocals are haunting without moving far into gothic. There's melancholy in the keyboards and pleading in the guitars. This fits an established doom metal template well enough, but there are points where it's surprising because it speeds up further than we expect.

Hidden Label adds the harsh voice, which I'm guessing belongs to guitarist Winnie Manka but I'm unsure isn't also Tam at points. Even on Mind Deception, where the two voices duet, it could be a couple of tracks from one singer combined. Another element that shows up on Hidden Label is an affinity for symphonic flourishes, presumably courtesy of Andy Shun Hung's keyboards. This never truly becomes symphonic metal, but it starts to hint in that direction here and moves closer still on The Seven Doors - Barbe Bleue -.

This is where the album coalesced for me, the contrasts between clean and harsh vocals and also between slower aching drive and symphonic flourishes, Tam reaching especially high and Manka staying low. There's a real epic feel to this one, even though it's no longer than Devoidness and a minute or two shorter than the next couple of songs, Mind Deception and Order of Chaos. There's a gorgeous clockwork section a minute and a half in and an excellent guitar solo too, proving that Chimeras aren't merely able to generate mood, they can be innovative with it too.

Mind Deception may be their oldest song, given that it was their 2018 single and it also featured as half of their demo, which is interesting to me, because it's easily the slowest song here, kicking off that way right from the outset and not speeding up until after the halfway mark of eight and a half minutes. It drops into a peaceful midsection before that with spoken vocals—well, whispered vocals—and sparing but melodious keyboards, before picking up that emphasis and chugging on for a while. Eventually it slows back down and ends with some elegant keyboard work to take it all home. It's my favourite song here apart from The Seven Doors - Barbe Bleue -.

That leaves two, because it seemed logical for me to run through this one uncharacteristically in order because of how it changes, gradually introducing new elements as it goes. Order of Chaos starts out very much like the last couple of songs, but speeds up considerably a few minutes in to almost blister along for a while. This never becomes thrash metal or anything like that, but it's a speedy pace indeed for doom and it stays there for a surprising upbeat minute, leaping headlong into it from another slow keyboard section. This is the real epic of the album and it's a tasty one, with a fascinating midsection, again much of it courtesy of Andy Shun Hung.

Winged Psyche, however, refuses to do almost anything that's gone before, not even approaching metal at any point. It's hardly an outro as a six minute plus song, but it's sung entirely clean and the guitars are either acoustic or quiet electric. From atmospheric doom metal, this shifts firmly into Wishbone Ash territory. That's not a bad thing, of course, and it's a good song, albeit more of a showcase for Tam than for the guitarists. It's just unexpected and what you feel about it may be in part due to whether you like being unexpected forty minutes into an album.

I liked this. It seems to me that Chimeras are still figuring out precisely what they want the sound of the band to be, possibly because these songs were likely written over quite a period of time. At least Hidden Label and Mind Deception are at least six years old, potentially up to eleven, as the band formed as far back as 2013. I don't know how often they play live, but I hope they write more frequently going forward, so we can hear an entirely new album that represents exactly who they are at that point in time.

Roz Vitalis - Quia Nesciunt Quid Faciunt (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Oct 2023
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I like the title of this album, which is Latin for Because They Don't Know What They're Doing. Of course, they do, because Roz Vitalis have been around since 2001 and this is their eleventh studio album. I've seen the name often, because they were founded by my favourite Russian harpsichord player, Ivan Rozmainsky, who was a one man band until expanding in 2005 to a group setting. This is much more modern than his chamber prog band Compassionizer, who were named for an album by Roz Vitalis, not least through the use of a lot of electric instrumentation. However, there are a couple of songs here feturing his Compassionizer bandmates.

Like Compassionizer, this is entirely instrumental progressive rock, but it's guitar led just as much as it's keyboard led, courtesy of guitarist Vladimir Semenov. This is highly varied, from the opener, Bait of Success, which is fundamentally riff-based and the guitar is only one of many instruments working that riff, to Premonition, which rocks out with full on guitar solos. One in particular soars in patient fashion, reminding a little of the Alan Parsons Project. Walking starts out in the Mark Knopfler style, another song that often reaches for a heavier guitar. However, the need isn't just heavy here and often calls for a quieter acoustic guitar instead of an electric one.

While Rozmainsky does play harpischord here, his keyboard work is also varied, from a quiet piano interlude called Fountain (and a quiet piano outro called Nocturne) to wilder space rock sections on Premonition and more traditional electronica on Wides. He plays a metallophone on Walking, which is a xylophone with metal bars, just like a glockenspiel, in a section that comes right out of a harpsichord solo and segues straight into rock guitar. He's a sort of glue here: even when he's not performing on a lead instrument, he still controls where the song is going as a composer and links sections with his keyboards.

Where clarinet is also a lead instrument in Compassionizer, Roz Vitalis is happy to stick to guitars and keyboards. However, there are other instruments here, many of which get moments to shine on Bait of Success, which often feels like a round robin giving each of them a chance to play with the core riff. It's played on guitar and it's played on keyboards, of course, in a variety of different ways. However, it's also played by flute and also on trumpet, which adds something new to the sound. Flute and trumpet lead the way on Daybreaking for quite a while and it's delightful.

I've liked each of the Compassionizer releases I've tackled thus far, but it was clear from the very first track of the very first album that they have no interest in being like anyone else. That was an entirely new experience for me, introducing me to chamber prog, and it's fair to say that they're a prog fan's prog band. I don't want to call Roz Vitalis commercial, because they're still doing their own thing, but they are far more accessible. Most of this music flows, sometimes very organically in a Philip Glass-esque way on Bait of Success. Much of it is up tempo and highly engaging. Sure, a part of the musical audience isn't going to go for instrumental music or for prog in particular, but it's easy to imagine a random fan coming into this blind and skeptical and leaving a clear fan, especially with songs like Daybreaking and Wides.

It gets more challenging eight songs in with The Man Whose Wings Were Cut Off, which is many of the things the album was up until that point but also a lot more. It's happier to be jagged at points, playing with less obvious rhythms and flows. It features heavier drums and some heavier guitar, but also drops into very delicate ethnic instrumentation, like rubab and doira with a harpsichord backdrop, because this is one of those songs with the whole of Compassionizer on it, even though most members of Roz Vitalis are still here too, bass player Ruslan Kirillov excepted.

Premonition is the epic of the album at just over nine minutes and it's a good track, but The Man Whose Wings Were Cut Off does more in under eight. It's far less accessible but it's also teasingly complex after listening to so many smoother, less challenging songs, and we almost pay attention all the more because of that. Beautifulness is a midway point, half challenging and half accessible, with obvious moments for Leonid Perevalov's bass clarinet, but it doesn't seem to have as much of a coherent identity. Moments strike me but I keep returning to The Man Whose Wings Were Cut Off instead.

While I've heard a lot of Rozmainsky's work in Compassionizer, this is my first experience of what I guess is his primary band, Roz Vitalis. I like this a lot, but it's easy music to like. It's a different side to Rozmainsky and he's often dominant, but Semenov is just as often dominant on guitar and I'm drawn to that. I believe Alexey Gorshkov is a guest here, but his trumpet stood out for me too, as a wonderful additional voice in this instrumental mix. It's been five years since the previous album from Roz Vitalis, presumably to give Rozmainsky time to build Compassionizer and they've never gone that long between albums before, so I'd guess we'll see another one sooner than 2029.