Monday, 31 July 2023

Buckcherry - Vol. 10 (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jun 2023
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This is a more straight ahead rock 'n' roll album than Hellbound, Buckcherry's ninth full length, but it's a good one and it starts out great. The most obvious success on this one is how the band storm out of the gate with This and That and keep up the momentum and energy for four songs before a dip into softer material with Feels Like Love. The most obvious failure is that those four are always going to be the best four songs here. It felt that way on a first listen and it feels that way after four or five times through.

This and That kicks off proceedings all downhome with claps and stomps. It bulks up, of course, but the entire song is a hook. It's an extra bouncy opener with some neat slide guitar, an aspect that's strong whenever it shows up to play. Good Time is a solid follow up, heavier but not quite as bouncy or catchy. Then again, not quite here is rather like the 36 year old Lionel Messi not quite being like his 24 year old self. He can still run rings around almost anyone else. It's another strong song, as is Keep on Fighting, with a prominent bass from Kelly LeMieux, and, to a slightly lesser degree, Turn It On. It's still a good one and it has another excellent solo, presumably from Stevie D., after a first two songs earlier on Good Time.

I don't want to give the impression that it just tails off after that on an inexorable slide to the end of the album. However, Feels Like Love is a softer song that hints towards the influence that shows up in the form of a cover to close out, namely Bryan Adams's Summer of '69. They do this well, but I would suggest that Josh Todd's snarl fits their more up tempo rockers more than softer songs like Feels Like Love. Also, Summer of '69 is a perfectly palatable cover, but it feels unnecessary, because it's a classic that most of us already know and they don't add anything to the original.

And, crucially, while none of the songs in between the dip in energy and the cover are bad, they're never quite the first four, especially the first three. The best of them is probably With You, with its elegant guitar tone and effortless riffing that reminds of the Scorpions, though, Todd has no plan to attempt Klaus Meine's range, staying in that clean but grunge-tinged snarl of his throughout. Pain is interesting too, starting out like it wants to be the Beatles but then shifting into something more like Guns n' Roses covering them. The rest are just decent hard rock songs in the Buckcherry vein. None disappoint, but none carry the energy of the openers.

And that's about it. If you're into Buckcherry, then you're going to love this album. It's a purer and more focused effort than Hellbound and it has a few more highlights. They merely happen to stack the first side. And with half of this an easy 8/10 but the other half more like a 6/10 and the bonus a decent but unnecessary cover, this was always destined to be a solid 7/10 album from a solid band on their tenth full length studio release. A more pivotal album would have been welcome, but this isn't going to disappoint the fans.

Thantifaxath - Hive Mind Narcosis (2023)

Country: Canada
Style: Avant-Garde Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jun 2023
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Here's a fascinating album from Toronto that's led off by a fascinating track, Solar Witch. The band describe what they do as avant-garde black metal, but this one starts out firmly in doom territory. Those are Candlemass chords, even if the guitars are doing weird scales around them. What black metal we hear at this point is in the vocals of, well, someone. This is a band of mystery and they're not interested in letting us know any of their names or responsibilities, though photos highlight a trio. That vocal is a raucous cry, somewhere in between a black shriek and a death growl but much closer to the former. The tempo does speed up and also gets increasingly jagged, but it shifts back and forth like a stuttering vehicle, an incredibly tricky slow fast slow fast slow that oddly works.

Solar Witch won't leave me alone, but other tracks joined it and I'm still not sure which I might call highlights. Die hard black metal fans, and I know how fanatical you get, are going to be happiest in Surgical Utopian Love, because it starts out as pure black metal as this album ever gets. For three minutes, it's fast and sheer and built out of jagged edges tortured into compliance. However, it's a long track, running eleven minutes and it has movements to explore. Three minutes in, it goes back to doomy and theatrical. Eventually it transforms into a sort of atmospheric krautrock.

What I found over repeat listens is that the album gradually shifts too, from the jagged rhythms of Solar Witch through the black metal wall of sound of Surgical Utopian Love slowly downward to Sub Lilith Tunnels, which starts out like krautrock and moves into avant garde classical. What triggered me to what was happening was an interruption. I came back to Hungry Ghosts, which I was enjoying as a smooth piece and suddenly found it jagged and deliberately awkward. That's because I'd gone back to it afresh and focused on what the guitars are doing behind the keyboards. Listening within the flow of the album, its jaggedness has much smoother tones than what went before.

It's almost like these songs are rocks that are laid out in a particular order. When we press play on the album, a waterfall starts to flow over them, smoothing them out. While we're listening to the first track, it's only just started that process. By the time we get to Hungry Ghosts, it's worn away many of the edges. By Sub Lilith Tunnels, everything's smooth. The only exception to that is Mind of the Sun, which closes out the album, because it speeds back up and returns to black metal. It's a good one too with a very neat cutoff to plunge us into sudden silence.

The best songs to me come early and late. I like Solar Witch more than Surgical Utopian Love, but I would guess that the die hards would reverse that. There's Mekong Delta in these songs, twisted a little more into an even more extreme direction. Hungry Ghosts is a delightful challenge and I dig Sub Lilith Tunnels a lot, as it shifts almost into a György Ligeti style dense choral vein, initially with Tangerine Dream overlaid but eventually pure. Mind of the Sun is a great and far more traditional closer.

In between, I have more trouble. The Lost Wisdom of Wolves is imparted through subdued whisper and distortion. It builds into that core black metal sound but spends a lot of time outside it. As on Surgical Utopian Love, the riffs are often constructed of mathematical patterns, as is Thantifaxath take as much influence from Philip Glass as from Emperor. As they get more fluid, the positive side is that these rhythms become hypnotic and draw us almost into a trance state. The downside is the way they can also lose us. Burning Kingdom of Now doesn't really do anything different from those songs around it but it never quite registers on me, more a point on the way somewhere.

What all this boils down to is that the "avant-garde" label that Thantifaxath stuck onto their genre is appropriate and challenging but not outrageously so. This remains accessible music, even as it's doing all sorts of things that we don't expect. It also becomes more accessible as the album moves along, from the weird tempo shifts of Solar Witch and the blastbeats of Surgical Utopian Love to a piece of atmospheric weirdness in Sub Lilith Tunnels that's almost entirely without drums. They do show up but only for a minute or so out of six and that late on.

I like a lot of this a lot but it's experimental enough that not all of it lands and the old chestnut of your mileage will vary firmly applies. If you're a black metal fan who's open to experimentation, as an increasing number of fascinating bands are doing, you should dig this. If not, then probably not.

Friday, 28 July 2023

Legion of the Damned - Poison Chalice (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Thrash/Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Jun 2023
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Here's another album from a band I've reviewed before that does pretty much the same thing in pretty much the same way. Legion of the Damned are Dutch and they've been around since 2005, a further thirteen years before that as Occult. They play a hybrid of thrash and death metal that's a lot more focused on the thrash side of that, with a little death as a texture, mostly in the vocals of Maurice Swinkels. Last time out was Slaves of the Shadow Realm in 2019, their seventh album, and that makes this their eighth.

I haven't heard that since reviewing it, but most of what I said about it holds true here. However, I clearly like it a little more than its predecessor, because this is a 7/10 for me rather than the 6/10 I gave to that one. Their biggest drawback is that the songs are so similar in approach that they blur together into a solid clump of metal that cleans out our systems for three quarters of an hour and then ends.

Maybe they're doomed to that middle ground where they're clearly very good at what they do but what they do is so invariable that a stronger album will be a 7 and a lesser one will be a 6. They're just too good and too consistent to drop any lower but too unwilling to vary their formula to climb any higher. And, while I'd usually see that as a negative, it can sometimes be a positive. There are days when I want to sit back and close my eyes and deep dive into the music, eager to hear things I have never heard before. However, there also days when I just want to show up to a gig and let the band bludgeon me into oblivion for an hour. Legion of the Damned seem like a good choice for the latter.

What that means to the listener is reliability. Every song here, and there are ten on offer, blisters along at a thrash pace and ought to generate some serious activity in the pit. Maybe Skulls Adorn the Traitor's Gate is a little faster and a little more emphatic than the rest, but it's a close call. I'd definitely call out the solos in the middle of this one as the most furious on the album though. It's an impeccable song that reminds me just how much I love thrash metal, as if I'd ever forget. On the other end of a very short spectrum, maybe The Poison Chalice closes out with a little less emphasis and a little more atmosphere. For a while, it's more Seasons of the Abyss than Reign in Blood, but it ramps up to the usual tempo soon enough.

And while that comparison is fair, it speaks specifically to the distance between a band's extremes rather than between that band and this. The sound here is always Teutonic, so Kreator are the key comparison rather than Slayer or anyone else American, and when they move away from a Kreator sound for a moment, it's only to go as far as Destruction. The only real difference is the added dab of death, which is there in the tone being a little deeper and in the added growl in Swinkel's voice.

For an album almost inherently devoid of anything interesting for a critic to say—either you'll love this or you won't—that's about it. There's nothing much else to add. So there's a softer intro to the opener, Saints in Torment? It doesn't matter. When the intro's done thirty seconds or so in, Legion of the Damned leap immediately up to full gear and stay there pretty much throughout. Do I have a favourite track? Not really. Maybe Skulls Adorn the Traitor's Gate because of those killer solos. It seems fair to call out Progressive Destructor too as so quintessential Teutonic thrash that it almost felt like I knew the vocal cadences on a first listen. It's a textbook.

Bottom line: this is good stuff. It's just the same good stuff throughout. Do you care?

Twilight Road - Trapped (2023)

Country: Italy/UK
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 9 Jun 2023
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You probably won't know the name of Twilight Road because this is their debut album, if indeed it isn't a one off project, but you may know the names involved, the primary pair being Dario Mollo, an Italian guitarist, and Carl Sentance, a British vocalist. They have worked together before, on an album by Dario Mollo's Crossbones from 2016 called Rock the Cradle, which was apparently strong enough to generate fans wanting another one, but I haven't heard that.

Mollo is best known for his pairings with famous vocalists: four albums in collaboration with Tony Martin, three more in Voodoo Hill with Glenn Hughes and another in EZoo with Graham Bonnet. I heard him last on the fourth of the Tony Martin albums, Thorns, from last year. Sentance first found fame in Persian Risk, Phil Campbell's old band, but also fronted Krokus for a few years, knocking out an album with them, and has been the lead vocalist in Nazareth since 2015, after Dan McCafferty chose to retire. My last experience of his work was Nazareth's Surviving the Law album, also from last year.

If those sound like diverse bands, you'll have figured out in advance how versatile this album is. In fact, it's almost deliberately set up like a trawl through a lot of the history of rock music. Trapped, for instance, is straightforward guitar-driven hard rock with soft keyboards behind it to open up a door to airplay. Dirty Rock 'n' Roll is harder and grungier and has a Guns n' Roses feel to it in both vocal delivery and structure, but a whole bunch of other names leap out at points, some Steve Vai here, some Def Leppard there, some Alice Cooper here, some Warrant there. Dark Angel travels a little further back in time and delivers a delicious back and forth between guitar and organ.

This sort of changing goals between tracks is so overt that I could imagine the song choice chosen by a randomising machine like they use on talk shows or Whose Line is It Anyway. The next one will be in the style of... *spin wheel*... seventies blues rock. Ah yes, Madonna. Then... *spins wheel* an outtake from Rainbow's Down to Earth album. OK, so Turn It Up. That's not quite the core riff from Since You Been Gone but it's close enough to bring it immediately to mind. Next up? *spins wheel* Bruce Dickinson but less sonically dense than Iron Maiden? I like that idea. So here's Empty Mirror and Warning. Take your pick.

Actually that vocal approach shows up before then, because there are parts of Dark Angel where Sentance channels some Dickinson, but that reaches its peak on Empty Mirror, where he hurls out lines like boomerangs to float in the air and maybe come back to him from the audience. It's not a difficult approach for him, more akin to his Persian Risk days, I'd think, than anything he's doing in Nazareth now, but he's a versatile singer. He's one of the key reasons that Perfect Strangers has a pretty high success rate. And yes, I'm talking about the Deep Purple classic.

This is one of those iconic songs that should be covered with extreme caution, because it's just not likely to work. Either you do it so well that it sounds like the original, in which case why bother, or you don't and it sounds like a poor knock-off, hardly the effect you're going for. I had my doubts in advance but this is a rare exception to those two scenarios, because Sentance sings it firmly in the style of Ian Gillan but not exactly how Gillan sang it, so it feels less like a cheap knock-off and more like a live version by Purple that we haven't heard before.

That holds true for how they treat the song too. It's close for a few minutes, enough so that we're singing along and not only with the words, because after all we know the guitar and organ riffs in this one the way we know a lot of lyrics. However, then it veers off into another direction entirely, into an instrumental workout that echoes what Purple might have done in a live environment, all the way down to a brief Rainbow homage at the end, but doesn't copy what they actually did. I'll say it plainly: I wasn't expecting this to work but it did and that may be the biggest success here.

In short, there's a lot here and while not much of it is particularly original, it's all done well, from the blues rock of Madonna to the prog metal elegance of Mafia, Sentance shifting his voice from a Bruce Dickinson sustain a little closer to a Geoff Tate one. Most of it sits in between in these two, exploring the range of what hard rock has done over a few decades and filtering it into a bunch of new songs. Mollo's excellent, my favourite moment from him being the core riff in God is Red, but Sentance makes the album for me.

Thursday, 27 July 2023

Аркона - Kob' (2023)

Country: Russia
Style: Pagan Black/Folk Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 16 Jun 2023
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I'm no expert, but my understanding is that Arkona, or Аркона in their native Cyrillic, started out as a folk metal band with black metal elements but gradually swapped those elements around to turn into a black metal band with folk metal elements. That start was a couple of decades ago, in 2002 and, by this point, ten albums in, they've moved a little beyond both, to become something a little less classifiable. This could be easily called post-black metal or simply progressive metal with extreme elements.

As their albums tend to be, it's an hour long, so there's a lot of material to explore, but it's focused into a small number of long tracks. Kob', which I'm unable to translate, lasts for seven minutes and Razryvaya plot' ot bezyskhodnosti bytiya matches it, a name that translates into the almost Celtic Frostian Tearing the Flesh from the Hopelessness of Being. That's pretty black metal right there, I might suggest. Ugasaya, Mor and Na zakate bagrovogo solntsa surpass nine. I'm unsure what Mor means, but the others mean Fading Away, apparently common enough that it only needs one word in Cyrillic, and At the Setting of the Crimson Sun. Ydi, or Go, almost reaches twelve.

The bookends are neither folk nor black metal. They're dark ambient, brimming with atmosphere but half of it's whispered horror and the other half a visitation from Russian cyberpunk gods. It's a long intro, as well, over four minutes of it, to get us into a certain mood. The whispering continues throughout the album as a segue between each track. There's dark ambience within the tracks as well, often as what could e called interludes between parts but shouldn't be because they count as parts all on their own.

Part of this is because the keyboards that drive the more ambient sections are provided by Masha or Scream, the only founder member in the band, though both guitarist Sergei (Lazar) and bassist Ruslan (Kniaz) have played on all ten albums. She's the driving force in the band, because she's the songwriter and lyricist and she handles the lead vocals too, though it's hard to tell which they are, because she does so in a host of different styles, both clean and harsh, soft and strident, chanting and brutal. I'm guessing all the voices are hers except the most obvious male voice, which may be either Sergei or Vlad, who's provided many folk instruments since 2011.

I like the title track, which works through quite the dynamic range, but Ydi surpasses it effortlessly and only gets better with repeat listens. It begins with a soft guitar that's almost a brook babbling over the whispers. It escalates soon enough, with a strident vocal from Masha that's underpinned by neat melodies. It builds into a more epic black metal style, almost martial in its assault, like the band are playing this as they hurtle over a hill towards us, the drums galloping horses. Sergei adds a screaming guitar solo around the three minute mark and then it all turns into a threatening folk chant, like something from the Hu. There's so much here and we're still only four minutes or so in.

Much of what follows is made of black metal components, but it's misleading to suggest that it's a black metal song or indeed a black metal album. The drums are often very fast, but the guitars are rarely interested in simply generating a wall of sound. They're often sharp. Some of the voices are bleak, though others are far cleaner and folkier. It's often black metal, but it's approachable for it without becoming soft and it's approachable because of those folkier elements. I should note that Arkona don't toggle between the two approaches, rather combining them with fascinating effect, which often takes the form of chanting vocals floating over the hurtling drums.

The folk elements show up in other ways too, often without us expecting them. Late in Ugasaya, for example, there's a strong black metal section but it suddenly gets bouncy and, however versatile a subgenre it's proving to be, bouncy is not a typical black metal attribute. Then again, Ugasaya was almost synthwave as it opened. One of my favourite Russian musicians is a pop singer called Linda, who trawls folk elements into a more electronic style that's moved through a lot of genres. Masha isn't unlike Linda as this one starts out, though she moves a long way beyond her as it runs on. She gets there in Razryvaya plot' ot bezyskhodnosti bytiya too.

The dynamic play here is fascinating and the changes and shifts in emphasis are just as fascinating. That's why it's easy to think of this as progressive metal or at least post-black metal rather than a purer form, not that "pure" doesn't come with its own problematic impressions in this genre. The whole thing becomes problematic. Just don't think of this as black metal, even when it is. Think of it as prog metal because then, when it shifts off into synthwave or folk or whatever else, it's going to make a lot more sense. Sometimes, as with bands like Opeth, labels become unhelpful except as indicators of how varied an album truly is.

I like this a lot. It wasn't what I expected but it impressed me on a first listen and, as I delve deeper into these songs on repeat listens, it impresses me even more. For highlights, Ydi stands above all this but Ugasaya is stunning, Mor continues to grow on me, especially from its midsection onward, including some fascinating flutes, and, frankly, everything here is worthy. I feel like I should listen another half a dozen times before posting this, but I have other music to move onto. The curse of being a critic is that I can't spend long enough on any particular release. Here, I really want to. It's not a pool to dip into. It's an ocean to explore.

Revolution Saints - Eagle Flight (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Apr 2023
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If you don't know the name, Revolution Saints are one of a number of supergroups conjured up by the president of Frontiers Records, Serafino Perugino, almost like a fantasy football team that he can actually put together. If you could create a band featuring absolutely anyone from the history of melodic rock, who would be in the line-up? Perugino asks himself that question often, then gets on the phone to see what can actually happen. In this instance, the band was originally made up of Jack Blades of Night Ranger, Deen Castronovo of Journey and Doug Aldrich of Whitesnake, to just cite the most obvious bands on their expansive respective resumes.

Nowadays, on their fourth album, only Castronovo is left from that original line-up, as Aldrich and both Blades left last year, but that's not a problem for Perugino. He just gets back on the phone. With Castronovo still there on lead vocals and drums, he chose to bring in the insanely busy Joel Hoekstra, who replaced Aldrich in Whitesnake and who also released his latest Joel Hoekstra's 13 album in June, on guitar and Jeff Pilson of Dokken on bass, though he appears to be in Foreigner nowadays.

These are all seasoned veterans and they each do good work here, but it's Castronovo's vocals that elevate this beyond the levels we might expect it to occupy. It shouldn't surprise that the songs are all grounded in Journey, but he brings a rasp to the style of soaring melodic vocals that Steve Perry would deliver impeccably clean. While Perry was and is an amazing lead singer, I found that I enjoy that rasp as it grounds this music and makes it a little more real and down to earth. The elegance found in the early songs like the opening title track and Talking Like Strangers is pure Journey but we can hit these notes at karaoke.

I like also that it has a guitarist like Hoekstra to keep everything heavy. If Journey were to tackle a song from this album, any song, it would be softer. It doesn't matter if it's an actual ballad, like I'll Cry for You Tonight, or not. It would inherently be softer with smoother vocals, more overt use of keyboards and a lighter touch on guitar. Hoekstra does tone it down somewhat on that ballad, but, even there, we can feel that he want to rock out and Journey didn't always want to do that. So the default sound here is like the heaviest Journey song ever and that's not a bad thing. Pilson's bass emphasises that too, never doing anything particularly flash but adding that back end efficiently and becoming more obvious the more we look for it.

It's telling, for instance, that I don't tend to be much of a fan of ballads on rock and metal albums, but I'll Cry for You Tonight is a highlight here. It starts soft but it builds and, while it never gets as heavy as the rest of the album, which I should emphasise is still hard rock rather than heavy metal, it gets closer to it than a lot of ballads would. Oh, and there's only one. Some songs may be a little softer than others, but that's just an admirable variation in texture. They're all emphatically hard rock songs and only this one among them truly counts as a ballad.

So far, so good. The core sound here is wonderful, that heavy Journey approach with grittier vocals and livelier guitars. The catch is that it's top heavy. Eagle Flight is a clear highlight at the start and Talking Like Strangers is another right after it. Need Each Other isn't quite as good but it's close, a strong third number. I'll Cry for You Tonight wraps up the first side as the fifth song and it's clearly another highlight. That's four out of five hits and Kids Will Be Kids isn't a miss, just a song that's a little lost in and amongst such stellar company.

However, the best song on the second side is the first one, Crime of the Century, and it's looser and less emphatic than those earlier gems. It's a good one, with particularly solid bass from Pilsen and another excellent vocal from Castronovo, not to forget a neat riff midway from Hoekstra, but it's a step down from the first half. And what's still to come is a step down from that. And that puts me in a similar place to where I was yesterday with Raven.

There's certainly a lot of 8/10 material here, but it initially felt a little generous to go there for the album as a whole. However, I ended up doing that because the stronger songs don't get weaker on repeat listens but the lesser songs get stronger. I'm getting to the point now where it feels wrong odd to call Set Yourself Free a lesser song. I think it's become a highlight and that nudges me over into thinking this is an 8/10 album. If you like the idea of heavy Journey, this is a must for you.

Wednesday, 26 July 2023

Raven - All Hell's Breaking Loose (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Jun 2023
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When I reviewed Raven's fourteenth album, Metal City, in 2020, I suggested that they hadn't much changed from their early days in the eighties, the style still fast and raucous without any apparent care to update for the modern era. This fifteenth album follows suit but I do have something more substantial to say this time out because the songs are a lot better. In fact, I ended that review with the suggestion that, while I enjoyed it, "I'll surprise myself if I remember any of these songs when I wake up tomorrow morning." I was right, but some of these songs are already sticking in my brain.

Quality is really the only difference. The line-up is the same, John & Mark Gallagher still the focus, as they've been since founding the band back in 1974, with Mike Heller still behind the drumkit, as he's been since joining in 2019. The sound is the same, heavy metal rather than speed metal but in a fashion that reminds us that Raven were one of the latter genre's key influences. The songs are relatively straightforward, with simple but powerful riffs, almost out of control vocals and speedy but catchy results. The biggest difference from the early days is Heller's use of double bass pedals.

Last time out, I enjoyed the album on multiple listens, but could still only find one song to call out as a highlight, which was the one they kicked it off with. It wasn't that the songs were bad, simply that they weren't particularly good either. Here, they're much stronger, kicking off well again but keeping going this time. Medieval is another solid opener, but Surf the Tsunami is a better follow-up, my first highlight of the album. The drums are frenetic, as Heller is keen to keep them, but the riffs are excellent and the hooks are strong. Two songs in, it's already better than its predecessor.

And there are other highlights to come. All Hell's Breaking Loose is pure Raven, energetic British heavy metal from the opening roar. John Gallagher in particular has a blast on this one, speaking these parts, singing those and screaming the rest. The chorus, delivered in backing vocals, is very memorable too. Desperate Measures echoes much of what I just said, but with an even better riff that absolutely stuck in my brain—I found myself humming it while doing the dishes, which has to be about the least metal activity there is— and a little more of a single-minded approach. It just doesn't want to be quite as fancy, not that fancy is a particularly good word to use on a Raven LP.

Invasion is a grower for me, because it starts out slower and heavier but kicks into gear with style, barrelling along through its midsection. It becomes a blitzkrieg and the only track left that has to follow it is more than up to the task. It's Go for the Gold, which features another storming chorus, another couple of excellent wild guitar solos from Mark Gallagher and even more drum fills than ever from Heller, who's been steadily working through his repertoire throughout the album and I should add that he's not just a drummer, he's a drum teacher.

In fact, Heller is an absolute dynamo on this album, an excellent choice of new school drummer for Raven's old school style. It's like the Gallaghers are throwing everything they have at him but he's keeping up with it all and relishing the challenge. I won't say that he manages it effortlessly, as I'd say there are a couple of moments when it feels as if he's actually having to work hard, but I would absolutely say mostly effortlessly. When Raven started out, it felt like they were unprecedentedly fast, pushing the envelope. They haven't changed much at all but metal has moved on. They're not remotely the fastest band in the world any more and Heller can almost keep up in his sleep.

So that's five highlights on an album with ten songs, which is a pretty strong hit rate, especially in comparison to the one last time out. What's perhaps most important is that the lesser songs here are probably all better than the lesser nine on Metal City and that means that this is more than a little bit better, it's a lot better. It's an easy 7/10 but I'm wondering if I should nudge it up to an 8. I find myself in two minds there. The pro is the consistency, because it's strong throughout, nothing letting the side down. The con is the lack of originality, because absolutely nothing here is close to new. Ditch the double bass pedal and Raven could have played these songs live in 1982.

So I think a 7/10 it is but it's a high 7/10. If you're a Raven fan and you don't care about originality, which seems like a redundant pairing, add another point to my rating because you're going to be a lot happier with All Hell's Breaking Loose than Metal City. You're going to replay this one a lot.

Saint Karloff - Paleolithic War Crimes (2023)

Country: Norway
Style: Stoner/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jun 2023
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I haven't heard Saint Karloff before but how can I resist that name? They hail from Oslo and play a brand of stoner rock that starts out right from the Sabbath playbook but varies considerably as it goes until it surprised me. My first impressions are that they're excellent musically, with the main musician Mads Melvold, handling guitars, bass and keyboards, presumably not all at one time. It's redundant to suggest that the band seems to be very tight, when most of it is one man recording a set of overlays in the studio, effectively playing along with himself. The other musician involved is Adam Suleiman, who contributes the drums.

Just in case Melvold holding down triple duty wasn't enough, he also handles the lead vocals and I was less sold on those. Initially, on the opener, Psychedelic Man, he comes across as somewhat like Glenn Danzig with a sore throat, though he has a cleaner, less raucous vocal reserved for the more psychedelic sections, such as when the space rock keyboards show up. I was a little taken aback by how smooth the instrumentation was and how the vocals stood in contrast, but they were never a problem and I warmed up to the contrast in time. The vocals are certainly the weakest aspect but they work nonetheless.

I liked Psychedelic Man on a first listen but I like Blood Meridian still more after it, because it's an acutely playful piece that hearkens back to other seventies bands than just the inevitably Sabbath. While the song seems nineties, the bounce of Queens of the Stone Age with the fuzz of Kyuss, it's a song that looks backwards too. There's Budgie here in how the melody is inherently built into riffs and changes. There's seventies organ that reminds of Uriah Heep. I like this one a lot.

Talking of looking back, Saint Karloff look back further than that. After a mellow interlude, Among Stone Columns, and another frenetic stoner rock song with a punk urgency, Bone Cave Escape, they shift into epic mode and trawl in Led Zeppelin for Nothing to Come, which is a peach of a song. It's acoustic Zep initially, even including a flute, with very Jimmy Page guitarwork but vocals nothing at all like Robert Plant. It builds, of course, heavying up a couple of minutes in, but, even with the more frenetic sound of the midsection, it's tempered by a less frenetic lead guitar. And, just as we get used to that, it shifts back to acoustic but remains frenetic, like utterly in your face folk music.

There's another epic to wrap up the album, Nothing to Come running seven minutes but Supralux Voyager taking up eight and a half. It opens in a similarly epic vein, but it's less hard rock and more psychedelic rock, taking the band in another tasty direction. Both these songs are highlights and I only realised at this point that the songs are generally longer than I'd expect from a commercially minded vocal stoner rock band. The rest aren't epics, but only the interlude and Death Don't Have No Mercy clock in under the five minute mark.

And, frankly, there's the biggest surprise for me, because I know this song well but in versions very unlike this one. It's a slow song for this album, but it's heavy and the vocals suggest that Melvold is shouting through a megaphone like Rudy Vallée used to do in the thirties. The song isn't as old as that, but I first heard it on the debut album by Hot Tuna, Jorma and Jack's roots-focused side band from Jefferson Airplane. That came out in 1970 and it was one of many of their covers of Rev. Gary Davis tunes. He sang blues and gospel, being ably qualified as a blind black preacher man, but he's one of my favourite guitarists. Nobody plays guitar like a blind bluesman and precisely none of the inventive intricacy they have is present on this song, which makes it very weird indeed.

Kudos to Saint Karloff though for covering such a deep cut and transforming it into something new in the process. Now let's see what you can do with Sally, Where'd You Get Your Liquor From? Kudos also for such a varied stoner rock album, shifting from seventies to nineties and from hard rock to psychedelia and touches of space rock. On first impressions, this worked as a frenetic workout but, the more I listen to it, the more it's all about the subtleties that come elsewhere. This is the third album by Saint Karloff and I'm all the more interested in hearing the previous two now.