Friday, 27 March 2020

3000AD - The Void (2020)

Country: New Zealand
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

With a population of only 5 million, New Zealand punches above its weight on a lot of fronts, but I see fewer Kiwi metal bands than I might expect, both in quantity and importance. The most notable outfit I can name may be Shihad and the most fun lately has been Alien Weaponry. Perhaps not coincidentally, both of those bands play (or least used to play) thrash metal and so do this band, 3000AD, who hail from Christchurch though their Bandcamp page suggests that they may be based in Berlin nowadays.

Interestingly, they call what they do progressive thrash, and I won't argue with that too much because there are certainly prog elements here, but they also play close to the looser punk side of thrash. They're a power trio, for a start, with drummer Hellmore Bones singing lead and the other two members singing plenty of backup. If the backing features prog stylings, the vocals are all crossover attitude.

One aspect that both the instrumentation and the vocals share is the way in which they interact as a matter of course. Just check out the intro to Who's Watching?, which we would usually expect to be a solo guitar but here is a duet between Sam Pryor's guitar and Scott Austin's bass. The reason that the band sound like they have more than three members is because that bass has a surprisingly high tone so that we often mistake it for a second guitar.

They have a clean sound that ought to fit pretty well when they perform with other German thrash bands. It's those punky vocals, which are as reminiscent of, say, the first Suicidal Tendencies album as someone like Kreator, and a futuristic lyrical bent that sets them aside. And the world's doing its best to catch up with them, as if the band were really 2020AD not 3000AD.

For instance, a song like Cells, which I presume was not written last month, seems eerily contemporary, set as it is against the wildly unlikely theme of a global pandemic. "Those walls have become a tomb, enclose around you like a concrete womb" sounds like it was written in response to social isolation. Its "microscopic annihilation" comes from "germs bred for war" so I hope we don't discover next week that COVID-19 was a CIA weapons test. It's not like the US hasn't done secret medical experiments in foreign countries before. Hey, Guatemala!

I wonder what else the prophets in 3000AD have in store for us. Well, hey, I see environmental disaster, internet addictions, the surveillance state, the world catching fire... all eerily topical. Only Journeys really sounds like a future state, involving interstellar travel as we attempt to locate a new planet to terraform. Maybe Elon Musk is already working on that.

I liked this but not as much as I thought I would. Even at its fastest, it's slower than I tend to like my thrash and it spends a lot of time mid-pace. I would see 3000AD as the sort of band who come on a few bands into a festival and energise the crowd. They're tighter and more sophisticated than the warm up bands but they're not iconic enough yet to be the names at the top of the bill. Then again, this is their debut. I like the riffs, the sound and even the punky vocals. I'd like to see where they go from here.

It's worth mentioning that the album wraps with Born Under a Black Sun, so that's what we have in our heads as we leave The Void. Along with Journeys, it's the joint longest song on the album and it's the only instrumental. It easily counts as the most consistent prog thrash across the eight tracks and it's delightful. I like the punky vocals but I love 3000AD all the more when the musicians concentrate on their instruments.

At Breakpoint - Let Your Demons Run (2020)

Country: Iceland
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 12 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook

This album kicks in like a radio rock show that we're not quite tuned into, but turn the dial to hear better once At Breakpoint come on. That's cool and it's a good way to start the album. I'm not sure we needed the same approach on the next song too, but hey.

At Breakpoint are a hard rock band on their debut album (following an EP in 2017) who hail from Hafnarfjörður, just south of Reykjavik. They're about as different from my previous Icelandic review as can be comfortably imagined, given that that was of a funeral doom metal band called Andvaka. That said, this group would play rather well to a metal audience, even though they're clearly rock rather than metal, because of the way they handle the back end.

These songs are rooted in melody with the vocals highest in the mix. Gunnar Björn is a rock singer, even if he has a very memorable vocal fry, as if he can magically transform his chords to sandpaper as and when he wants.

When in sandpaper mode, he could be seen as a alternative rock singer with a host of comparisons to American alt rock vocalists, mostly to modern bands that I don't know and thus would need my kids or grandkids to identify. The band's Facebook page mentions trendy bands like Bring Me the Horizon and Paramore, whose singers, I imagine, might sound like what Björn is doing. When in the smoother mode, he's very radio friendly in more of a pop vein. There's even a hint of autotune on the final track, appropriately titled Not OK.

However, the band behind him have a lot more than their toes dipped into the modern metal scene. They never want to blister or shred, but they are tuned down and drive the songs with patient riffs, the tone moving up and down the heaviness scale quite a long way in either direction. 3 Lines is easily the heaviest song on offer and, the heavier the band get, the more they tend to remind a lot of a slower, more mainstream Clutch.

What's impressive is that the most catchy songs include Not OK and 3 Lines, so the poppiest one with a hint of autotune and the heaviest one. That's the biggest success of the album, that this can feel both utterly commercial but also agreeably heavy at the same time, without ever really moving from rock into metal.

And that's pretty much all I can say about this album. The lighter songs do all the same things as the heavier ones, just with the heaviness knob turned down to some degree. In other hands, Without You would be a ballad, but here it's not really any different from 3 Lines except for the fact that it's not heavy while the other one is. We're used to volume knobs that make something quieter or louder. At Breakpoint have the same thing for weight.

I should mention the band members, as they make this seem rather effortless when it surely isn't. Beyond being the vocalist, Björn also plays guitar but Rúnar Þór is the lead guitarist and he's a highly patient one, deliberately avoiding the urge to just take over. Pavol Ingi plays a reliable bass. Anton Búi is the drummer, who's as patient in his way as Þór. What I'll take away from this the most is how restrained it is, how these musicians stayed with their plan to nail the groove they wanted without anyone really showing off. And that's why it grew on me.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Abäk - El canto de las Lapas (2020)

Country: Costa Rica
Style: Folk Rock/Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

If Külmking resisted their folk metal leanings, Abäk embrace them, defining themselves and their goals as "a cultural rock project that seeks to spread different branches of Costa Rican culture through music." Their songs stem from the myths, history and literature of their native country. I'd go with folk rock rather than folk metal because, while there are certainly places where the guitars speed up and rock out, they're always kept low in the mix and the result feels like rock music that gets more energetic when it feels the need. And whatever we call it, I like it a lot.

Clearly Abäk aren't a small band, photos suggesting ten members, and that's before we factor in four guest musicians, including Jose Macheño from the Spanish folk metal band Lándevir. Sadly, I'm unable to find anything to tell me who's in Abäk and what they do in the band. So let's just say that there are a few vocalists, all of whom sing clean, whether rough male or crystal clear female. There are at least two guitars, along with a bass and various drums. There are certainly flutes involved and a fiddle too.

The opener, La Bruja Zárate, starts off as the band mean to go on. There's a minute and a half of pure folk: acoustic guitars, a hand drum and vocals. At that point, it leaps into eighties heavy metal, continuing with clean vocals but now with a drumkit and electric guitars clearly influenced by early Iron Maiden. Even the sound fits because the guitar is much lower in the mix than a metal band would place it nowadays. By the three minute mark, though, the metal calms down a little and a soaring female voice duets with the guitar, not singing words but just sounds à la Yma Sumac. She eventually sings words but with a folk chant behind her and we're back to the beginning.

I was sold on the album just from that one song, but there are six more and they continue to be interesting. Iriria adds flutes and a punk vibe, without losing the metal guitar solo in the middle. This is a wild mix but one that works really well. It's folk, it's rock, it's punk, it's metal. And the rest of the album continues to mix these genres up in different combinations, as if everyone does it and it's the most natural thing in the world. This is probably my favourite song on the album.

Luna Roja is a folk duet between emotional male and female voices. Guerrera features an oddly strident female vocal, given the others we've heard thus far. Santa Rosa is a metal song built on a military beat. Conquistador gives the bass player plenty of time in the spotlight. The title track brings in the fiddle, which adds an elegance to proceedings that's echoed by the lead male voice. It's also the longest of the tracks by far, running almost ten minutes, and it grows perhaps the most, hauling us along quite the journey before wrapping up with flutes and birdsong.

I'd love to know more about Abäk. Is this some sort of musical collective? I can't imagine that all ten band members appear on every track, especially as the vocals seem to vary considerably across the album. I believe this is the second studio release for them, following a concept album, El Tambor de Sibö in 2018, which I'm eager to check out now. Whoever does what and how often, I enjoyed this a great deal, as I have most of the South American folk metal that I've found of late, bands like Curare, Herteitr and Tuatha de Danann.

Külmking - Kõik kaob (2020)

Country: Estonia
Style: Groove Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I'm seeing a lot of different labels for Külmking, who are from Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Their Bandcamp page tags them as death metal, folk metal and pagan metal; their Facebook page shrinks down to just the latter; while Metal Archives plumps for death/groove metal. On the basis of this album on its own, I'd lean towards groove metal as a descriptor of the sound myself, though with a strong death influence.

Presumably the pagan and folk angles are tied to the lyrics; the band's name is a "malicious spirit in Estonian folklore". It seems that Google Translate isn't too great with Estonian, as is evident just from attempting to figure out who does what in the band. It makes sense that Madis Velström takes care of "a hellish vocal" but Rain Parkman is apparently the man who handles the "grab drum heating", whatever that is. Searching for individual words, I see that Sven Põder is on "welding guitar" while Raiko Parts handles the "chisel guitar", but I could only get "eminent bass" for Mihkel Orek. Well, eminent is good, I guess.

Given descriptions like those, I'm surprised that this isn't more vicious in nature, but it's very controlled material. The musicians mostly concentrate on riffs and a succession of complex time changes to separate them, which is enough to make this a very djenty experience if not for the death influence and the reasonable pace. It does feel like the band could have taken this a heck of a lot further in many different extreme directions but they chose to avoid them all in favour of keeping the songs as tight as possible.

The band start off on Timuka tütar as they mean to keep going. Only the odd but intriguing intro really separates it from the other nine songs on offer. It's djenty for a while, that jagged guitar tone that makes it sound like a bass, but there's a thrashy guitar later on when the song gets moving. Madis Velström grunts and growls his way through, as if he's not entirely sure if he prefers death growls or hardcore shouts. He moves from one to the other a lot here. The approach works well as a companion to the guitar sound.

The lack of variety is surely the album's biggest problem, just as the tight musicianship is surely its biggest asset. Some songs feature faster sections that play closer to older school metal, but they always return to a staccato riff at some point. Jaaniöö is a great example of all of that, but it's also elevated by what I presume is a backing vocal that's less polished but more characterful than Velström's lead because it's just singing, not playing the role of a singer. Other faster songs, like Libahunt, just play that staccato djent style faster.

I wish I knew who the backing vocalist is. He shows up again on Libahunt and at further points throughout the album and sings in a folkier style. I would never call this folk metal because it clearly wants to be modern and I don't hear any ethnic instrumentation at all, except for maybe a quiet moment late in Surm that is probably a guitar but sounds more like a lute. However, that backing vocal adds an extra element that, over a few listens, became the one and only identity I could take away from the album. When it's in play, the band sound like nobody else, only Külmking. When it isn't, they're just one more djenty metal band, however musically proficient they happen to be.

I'm not a big fan of djent, so the fact that I like this is telling. I can't say I like it a lot but that may just be my personal tastes showing. It's as capable, as well written and performed, as anything with that sort of sound. I just happen to prefer the Külmking that Külmking seem to be trying not to be, the folkier band of songs like Kaarnakiwi with a different vocal style.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Stonus - Aphasia (2020)

Country: Cyprus
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube

As if we needed any more proof that heavy stoner/doom rock is alive and well and continuing to spread across the globe, here are Stonus, who are Cypriots from Nicosia, even though they've apparently been based in London since 2018 and they recorded the album in Greece. This is killer stuff, six tracks that take us on a psychedelic trip that's bookended rather nicely.

Awake starts things out heavy and betrays a lot of influences. There's blues here, especially in the midsection, and it's psychedelic blues with a really good mix. There's space rock here too, the song often sounding like Hawkwind but without all the synths. Just to make it even more interesting, it's also about as sleazy as I've ever heard stoner rock get. The genre is versatile.

And it needs to be on a thematic concept album like this one. Aphasia is the inability to understand words not because they're not known but because the brain has forgotten how to connect them with their meaning. This album is an attempt to "imitate the mental disorder in a more spiritual and personal perception".

The title track is a little clearer because that's an Ozzy vocal through and through, though the music backing it doesn't play in the expected territory of early Black Sabbath. Sure, it's heavy and doomladen but it doesn't feel like an homage at all. It's more like what a different band might have done in 1970 or 1971 if they'd had the same influences as Sabbath but chose to go in a slightly different direction.

And then it gets really interesting because Mania gets all patient. This one absolutely captivated me, kicking off with a liquid guitar that's relatively standard for stoner rock but then pausing suddenly and beautifully as a hint for the rest of the band to crunch in all together. Rather than finding one riff to build the song, it quietens down massively and goes dreamlike first. While it does ramp up late with some excellent soloing, Mania is as notable for what it doesn't do as what it does.

Fortunately, Nadir, the longest track on offer at eight and a half minutes, follows suit. It starts out with a guitar mimicking Pink Floyd electronica, then moves into a stoner chillout zone that somehow remains a little chill even as it escalates into something more powerful. When the vocals show up, we suddenly realise how long we've been without them, this band being just as effective instrumentally as when Kyriacos Frangoulis exercises his voice. There's certainly some Sabbath here this time out, but the trippiest Sabbath you can imagine.

If you think we might be missing the riffs, Stonus add plenty back on Dead End, but the vocals stay in that hallucinatory trip mindset. There's also an effect applied to them that makes them seem closer to the guitar. Depending on how deep we've dived into this, that proximity in tone adds another level to the psychedelic nature of the trip. The frantic harmonics towards the end are cool too.

And that leaves Ghost Town to take us home by combining the Ozzy vocals from Aphasia with the chillout trip of Nadir, over a very Sabbath-esque bass line from Andreas Aristides. Eventually it ends up back in Hawkwind territory, a driving trip but again without any synths to space it out. We're almost back where we started and that's a great moment to just let the album play again.

I believe this is the debut full length for Stonus, though they've put out a couple of EPs, Lunar Eclipse in 2018 and a single called Sweetspot late last year. Given how excellent this is, I'm eager to check those out while I wait for the band's follow up to Aphasia.

Smouldering in Forgotten - Invictus Mortem (2020)

Country: Bahrain
Style: Black/Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

The best way to highlight what Smouldering in Forgotten sound like may be to explain where their name came from. They were happily going about their days under the name of Bleached Bones until deciding in 2005 to rename to a lyric from Upon This Deathbed of Cold Fire from the debut Goatwhore album. It does make my heart glad to realise that Goatwhore, one of my favourite band names of all time and an excellent live act, are known well enough in the Kingdom of Bahrain to prompt a local band to rename in homage.

If you don't know Goatwhore, their style is blackened death metal with some elements of thrash. Smouldering in Forgotten are similar but darker, warmer and with Mardus's vocals far more consistently death than Goatwhore's black, oddly given that they seem to have started out as a black metal outfit. I'd suggest that they have better production as well but then I realised how it blows out the extremes for the sake of volume and so it distorts annoyingly often. Instead I'll just praise the mix, however it got output. Of course, you can never be sure with anything that touches on black metal if the bad production is deliberate to "keep it real".

When it stays within available amplitude, I like the sound here and I prefer the deeper vocal style, which is old school death metal. The instrumentation tends to build a backing wall of sound, over which the guitars embellish and riff and the vocals rumble. There's not much variety here but there are some interesting points, like the middle eastern flavour early in Tartarus that I wish had emerged more often, and the philosophising about the rise and fall of civilisations that closes out the album.

Generally speaking, I prefer the longer songs here. The average Smouldering in Forgotten song runs five minutes and change and features much of the same result. As if to suggest that they need more room to work, the longer songs bring a little more to bear. My favourite here is Lord of Venom, a seven and a half minute epic. After that, I'd probably plump for Of Chains and Crowns, which runs almost seven minutes if we cut out the long sample. It's notable that these songs don't do anything special that the other ones don't except breathe more. The riffs feel stronger for it and the slower moments feel all the more ominous for it.

Excepting Of Chains and Crowns, which closes out the album, it's the trio of tracks at its heart that impress the most. Lord of Venom kicks them off and Tartarus wraps them up. Inside those bookends is My Pyre Awaits, which could well be the fastest and most blistering piece here and the closest we get to a black metal song. Busac is a whirlwind behind the drums and both the bass and guitars get memorable runs for Hussam and Voidhanger respectively.

There are a couple of earlier Smouldering in Forgotten albums, Legions into Black Flames and I, Devourer, though they're surprisingly old, having been released in 2007 and 2010. I don't believe the band ever ceased to be but it seems that this is the band's first new material in a decade.

I like it but I don't like it as much as I should for "first new material in a decade". I ought to feel the hunger of a band who finally find themselves back in the studio and can't wait to lay down ten years worth of writing and honing and finessing. I don't think they sound tired and they're all clearly talented musicians but, sadly, I don't think they sound remotely as hungry as they should.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Pure Wrath - The Forlorn Soldier (2020)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Atmospheric Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 6 Mar 2020
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Pure Wrath is another one man project, this time from Indonesia, and the one man is Januaryo Hardy, who does everything here except the drums, which come courtesy of Yurii Kononov, formerly of White Ward and currently of a host of varied bands, and the piano on the opening track, which is by Dice Midyanti. It's Hardy's fourth release as Pure Wrath, following two albums and a split release with French symphonic black metal band Onirism, and it counts as an EP, even though it generously runs almost half an hour.

It's also very good indeed. I've listened through a few times and every time it shocks me by ending so quickly and I realise all over again just how much it sucked me in. There are only three songs on offer, ranging from seven up to ten minutes, but they're so immersive that they feel like five apiece. If I have a complaint, it's in the mix of the drums, which are excellent but a little buried in the mix. The piano works well down there, because it teases and we pay extra attention to hear it. The vocals are buried to exactly the right level too, but I'd have liked a crisper drum sound.

The piano gets overt at the end of When a Great Man Dies, underpinning what I presume is a voice sample of someone who was involved in or affected by the subject of the album, which is the genocide that began in Indonesia in 1965 as an anti-communist purge after a failed coup and became so much more, leaving a million dead and setting up the New Order of Suharto in power for the next three decades. Maybe it's a late recording of Sukarno, the deposed president, who was placed into house arrest until his death.

I've read that this bloody period is little talked about in Indonesia, due to being suppressed by the government, so it's good for it to see a little light on this album, even if I have no idea what the lyrics happen to be. I did catch odd bits here and there, enough to believe that they're delivered in English but not enough to have a clue about what they cover. I'd like to read those lyrics, just as I'd like to know who's speaking in that sample.

Atmospheric black metal is a fantastic genre to explore this sort of subject matter. hardy and Kononov create a powerful wall of sound that's impossible to ignore, just like the mass murder of one per cent of the population would be. It's hard and mostly fast until, at certain key moments like one midway through With Their Names Engraved, it all suddenly stops and we're calm in the eye of the storm wondering what's still going on out there while it's so peaceful here inside. After that moment of peace, the last couple of minutes are melancholy, with an almost choral dirge, as we come to terms with what's just happened.

What impressed me most, beyond this structuring, is how the guitars retain a melodic line even at ludicrous speed. One of the benefits of being a one man band is that every part you play has to be recorded separately and, once you get into that mindset, it's no great stretch to add further layers. As this album has such a dense sound, I can't say how many guitar layers Hardy added but much of the album obviously features a backing layer to maintain density and a lead layer for surprisingly patient melodic riffing.

I liked this a lot on a first listen and I liked it all the more after a few times through. I look forward to seeing what else Hardy has done, whether as Pure Wrath or one of his many other bands. He also provides everything for a brutal death project called Perverted Dexterity and a post-black one called Lament, among a host of others. He shows a lot of versatility here and that is never a bad thing when you play in multiple genres.

Silent Tiger - Ready for Attack (2020)

Country: Honduras
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Feb 2020
Sites: Facebook

Ready for Attack, whether the song or the album, is hardly the most original music ever released. If you're a fan of the genre and tried to come up with ten quintessential song titles, you'd come pretty close to the ones on this album. Fortunately, that's the last negative thing I'm going to say about it because this is a quality release from a band that's based in the Honduras with a session vocalist who's apparently everywhere at the moment.

They start out reasonably heavy with that title track, but Chasing the Wind adds a more prominent keyboard sound and we're grounded in what Silent Tiger are going to bring us for the next forty minutes. This song starts out with a decent eighties metal riff, layers in keyboards and then strong vocals on top of everything. David Cagle's voice is definitely at the top of the mix, even if I'd have liked Jean Funes's guitars to be as far up there with him, especially because the songwriting seem to value both equally.

Most of the information I can find on the band revolves around the line-up, Cagle being a prolific session vocalist perhaps best known in melodic rock circles for Northrup Cagle, LastWorld and Marty and the Bad Punch. Funes and drummer Joel Mejia play in Hearts on Fire, with Funes also cited for Sound of Eternity and Mejia for Codigo Eterno. I haven't heard any of these bands though I'm far more likely to seek each of them out after enjoying this album. I think this also means that this is the debut for Silent Tiger.

Their Facebook page does list influences, which are surprisingly heavier for the most part than we might expect having heard the album. Sure, that's very recognisably a Def Leppard riff in Only Heartbreak but the rest of the song, like the others here, is much more grounded in AOR bands like Foreigner, REO Speedwagon and Journey. Unannounced, Tearing Me Apart could play on my local classic rock station without anyone realising that it wasn't a contemporary of Wheel in the Sky or Feels Like the First Time.

While Tearing Me Apart may well be the best song here, Come to Me sounds just as quintessential, including every component of a successful AOR song: power riff, driving beat and heartfelt vocals, but also a layer of keyboards that keeps us from ever thinking that it's too heavy for daytime radio. Then Edge of Love follows it up with more of the same but with more imaginative drums. The most fun riff is surely on the closer, Eyes of a Blazing Fire. Frankly, had this album been released in the heyday of AOR, it would have featured at least four or five singles and been heavily rotated on mainstream radio.

If, I should add, that the powers that be didn't realise that they were from the Honduras, because I always believed that there was an unwritten rule to require all AOR bands to be perceived as American, even if they were really Canadian and regardless of how many Brits were in their line-ups. If nobody owned up, though, then Silent Tiger would have got away with it because, if David Cagle isn't actually American, he sure sounds like it. The whole album is certainly sung in English and without an accent.

The best album I've heard this month is a melodic rock album, from Canada's Harem Scarem, and, while this isn't as good as that remarkable gem, it's an album worth mentioning in the same breath. There are similarities in style, consistency and quality. Also both albums are worth listening to a few times with different focuses.

Listen to this without a focus, letting the songs introduce themselves. Then listen again with special attention to Cagle's voice and how his hooks drive the melody. Then shift your focus to Funes's guitar to see how he grounds it all with his riffs and elevates it with his solos. Then ditch the focus and see how it washes over you as an old friend. It's a strong album, even if it isn't particularly original.