Thursday, 18 May 2023

Jason Bieler and the Baron von Bielski Orchestra - Postcards from the Asylum (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 14 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

If there's anyone working in the rock/metal genre who has a better understanding of melody than Jason Bieler, I have absolutely no idea who it might be. This is a double album of new material with fifteen songs on offer and they're so loaded with melodies and harmonies that we start to believe that everything is a hook. Sure, the choruses are hooks but the verses are also hooks and the riffs and often the beats too. He's so apparently effortless at this that it can be hard to believe that it's new material and we didn't just grow up with all these songs as cultural atmosphere.

Bombay is a particularly strong opener, a lively and bouncy alt rock piece with all those hooks and plenty of harmonies too. The bookends are as steampunk as the cover art suggests yet again and they set a scene that I was surprised not to see visited more during the album. However, the style in between that reminds us how much Bieler enjoys the Beatles is consistently explored across the other songs. The question often comes down to how much he wants to rock out at a point in time, as he does on Heathens or Sic Riff, and how much he doesn't, as on Mexico, which is layered hooks and strings, even though he adds a tasty guitar solo.

Well, I say he adds a tasty guitar solo but I'm not sure who does what here, beyond expecting that Bieler does most of it. There are guests, most obviously Andee Blacksugar and Edu Cominato, who are currently touring with KMFDM and Geoff Tate respectively. Both of them appear on a slew of tracks, the latter for drums and the former for "extra guitars, noises and solos". There are a whole lot of others, but I'm thinking the vast majority are Bieler under various wild and wonderful noms de plume, such as Wormsby Troutlick and Stralinksi Waka-waka. Quite a few of these names have a connection to food, like Baklava Jones and Stilton Shoebaggies, so I'm guessing Bieler was hungry when he conjured them up.

The actual other people lean towards multi-instrumentalists who perform with a broad variety of artists but only appear on one track, usually Beneath the Waves. That includes two bassists, Chris McLernon, formerly of Bieler's primary band, Saigon Kick, and Todd Kerns, currently working with Slash; as well as Ryo Okumoto of Spock's Beard on piano and keyboards. Elsewhere, there's Marco Minneman, a German drummer who's played with everyone from Nena to Necrophagist, and Ricky Sanders, also ex-Saigon Kick, who was on the previous Baron von Bielski Orchestra release, Songs for the Apocalypse.

It doesn't surprise me that Bieler should attract such a versatile set of musical partners, but they aren't here to do anything particularly flash. They're here to collaborate with him in ways that are reliant on having an open musical mind. That works gloriously on the first of the two records, with everyone making wonderful contributions across the board that always fit with Bieler's melodies. Bombay is only the first of a number of highlights, because Heathens bounces with edges, Birds of Prey is beautiful and elegant, Flying Monkeys is full of fascinating rhythms and Sic Riff grinds.

That's not to say that the second disc doesn't work because it does, just not quite so effortlessly as the first. Deep Blue is probably my favourite track there, with its prog pop rhythms and langurous drive, but I'd put that behind all five of the earlier highlights that I mentioned above. Other songs stand out in other ways too, often lighter ones. There are keyboard touches that elevate 9981 Dark and electronica is even more fundamental to Bear Sedatives, with its delightful vocalisations that serve as both rhythm and backing vocals. Human Head closes out in an uncharactistically folk vein, the most unique song here and my second highlight behind Deep Blue.

That uneven balance between discs doesn't help the album, but nothing really lets it down. Quite frankly, the worst songs here would seem good on someone else's album because everything that Bieler does is worth hearing. It goes without saying that everything here is instantly recognisable as his work because his style is not easily mimicked and nobody else does it quite like him. I think I would award the first disc a 9/10 but the second only a 7/10, so this averages out to a second highly recommended 8/10 album in a row for Bieler. Just buy everything he's ever done and absorb it.

Wednesday, 17 May 2023

Tygers of Pan Tang - Bloodlines (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Tiktok | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

The Tygers of Pan Tang have been around for a long time and they've long been one of those bands who show up on lists of criminally underrated metal bands, but they're on top of their game lately and it's surely time for them to reap some more mainstream success. Their previous album, Ritual, was their twelfth and it got a rare 9/10 from me; it only missed earning my Album of the Month for November 2019 because I'd reviewed the latest Opeth a week earlier. It featured a relatively new line-up, with only guitarist Robb Weir surviving from the old days and they're still not quite stable, it seems, with two further changes since Ritual.

First up was Francesco Marras, who replaced two-time guitarist Gavin Gray in 2020, and the guitars certainly sound tasty as the album begins. Edge of the World kicks off with a swirling of keyboards and a vague middle eastern flavour, before the riffs kick in and Italian vocalist Jacopo Meille joins the fray. This isn't remotely as fast and heavy as its equivalent from Ritual, Worlds Apart, but it's a peach of a song and it does rather a lot in only five minutes, even slotting in a Latin guitar early in the second half before some searing guitar solos. Marras is going to fit in fine.

Edge of the World sounds good on a first listen but it warrants a few times through to appreciate it properly and that's not uncommon on this album. It's a little less immediate than Ritual, with the exception of tracks like Fire on the Horizon that blisters out of the gate like classic Diamond Head and carries us effortlessly along with it. It's a fast song, which ought to fit new bassist Huw Holding down to a tee, given that he's also a member of Holosade right now. It's a tailor-made song for me and an instant favourite, but it's hardly the deepest song here. It does what it does and moves on.

There are plenty of deeper songs on offer. In My Blood follows Edge of the World's lead as another elegant grower. The hook reminds me of REO Speedwagon's Riding the Storm Out but the song as a whole doesn't. The same could be said for Taste of Love, which starts out like a ballad but grows substantially until we forget how it began, even though it only runs four minutes and change. The band get sassy on Light of Hope but never stop being heavy and there's another guitar solo that's worth praising, even if it's not as ambitious as some here. I like the ones on Kiss the Sky too.

Perhaps the most interesting song for me is Back for Good, because it feels rather like Sean Harris of early Diamond Head and Mick Tucker of Tank teamed up to record a glam metal song, halfway in between Great White and Skid Row. That's an odd combination of names to throw at one song, but that's how interesting the Tygers are getting. Meille doesn't always sound like Harris, but he has a tremendous range that doesn't seem like one. Everything he does here is consistent but there are points where he shifts into blues rock, hard rock, arena rock, melodic rock, you name it, without an interruption in that consistency.

Diamond Head do keep popping up as a comparison, but that's hardly a bad thing, especially when it comes to riffs. There's a lot of Mick Tucker here but there's also a lot of Brian Tatler and there is no better riffer on the planet than him. If the Tucker influence is most overt on Back for Good and Kiss the Sky and the Tatler influence is most overt on Fire on the Horizon, the rest of the album is often somewhere between the two, at one point channelled through an intermediary, because the album ends with Making All the Rules, which has Metallica guitar touches and we know where they were influenced. It's great to see that feed back in turn.

In short, I don't think this is quite up to Ritual but it's another excellent album from the Tygers. It's easily a highly recommended 8/10 but it's more of a grower so it's within the bounds of possibility I might up that later. It's a perfect example of an album that never feels short but never outstays its welcome, only just shy of three quarters of an hour, with ten solid tracks. Not all are highlights, but none let the side down and every one of them is well worth listening to in isolation. They're also all clearly Tygers songs but none sound like each other. It's almost a textbook for what a heavy metal album by an older name ought to sound like in 2023.

I've been a fan of the Tygers since I discovered rock and metal in 1984 but I'm finding that I'm more of a fan than ever with each successive new release. And can I think of a gig I'd rather see right now than a Tygers and Diamond Head double header? No, I can't.

Smokey Mirror - Smokey Mirror (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Psychedelic Blues Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

Boy, have I been waiting for this album. The last gig I went to before COVID closed everything down was a psychedelic blues rock band from Dallas, Texas called Smokey Mirror and it's no hyperbole to suggest that they were the most devastating live band I've ever seen. What made that even more special was that they were technically there in support of local stoner metal band Loserfur and the venue, which was about the size of my front room, wasn't full and largely included members of the other three bands on the bill. My brief gig review on Facebook stated that "they gave it everything like they were playing in front of 20,000 people who had paid $200 to get in, rather than 35 people for $8 cover".

They were a trio then, with only an EP out, but they've bulked up to a four piece—Cam Martin has replaced Josh Miller on drums and Caleb Hollowed has stepped in on a second guitar—and signed with Rise Above Records. That's important because this band generated a sound that was hard to believe was generated by only three people and there are now four of them. Along with the boost in production values that comes with an important label, this ought to seriously blister and it very much does that, aided I believe by engineer Paul Middleton, formerly of seventies heavy rock band Blackhorse, also a trio, who did his thing at a studio that uses only vintage analogue equipment.

The result is that this feels authentically seventies, the sort of ultimate crate digger find, surely an album lost in obscurity because nobody could believe how intense it was in 1975. Imagine the most furious psychedelic rock from that decade, drench it in acid and stretch it out for forty minutes and change and you might have an idea what Smokey Mirror sound like. I thought of them on stage as a cross between Aeroblus and Black Sabbath, with some of Motörhead's ruthless heaviness and an intricacy from the Allman Brothers. That translated well to the studio, though there's not as much of the Motörhead as I remember.

They tellingly start with a crescendo, pause a moment and then launch into full gear with Invisible Hand, a song from their debut EP. There are three songs here that are previously released but all benefit from being re-recorded here, not just because of the production but because they're even tighter as a band now than they were, which is hard to imagine. The others are Magick Circle, also from that EP, and A Thousand Days in the Desert, which saw release as a single. All three are on a compilation CD I picked up from the band in 2019 which combined the EP, the single and a further song as a bonus.

Invisible Hand is a killer opener, an ambitious statement of intent, and Pathless Forest matches its intensity but with more obvious melodic lines. Both these songs blister, but Magick Circle blisters a lot harder, which is saying something. It ran to six minutes on the EP but it's eight here, even with a faster pace. The first four minutes there are done in three here, with a neat slower section before some feedback worship wrapped around a bass solo, and, eventually, of all things, a drum solo. It's a ballsy move to include a drum solo on a debut album, but it works because Magick Circle is easily defined as a showcase. The only thing more ballsy would be to kick off the album with it.

From there, it's new material for a while and wildly varied new material at that. I believe they put out Alpha-State Dissociative Trance as a single, which is fantastic because it's particularly wild and full of jazz fusion. It's a jagged and vicious sub-three minute blitzkrieg to cleanse our palates after an eight minute epic with a drum solo and, just in case we needed to cleanse our palates after that level of intensity, Fried Vanilla Spider Trapeze is old school roots rock, only a minute long but music that wouldn't be out of place on a Hot Tuna album. Nice harmonica too.

My favourite song here has to be Sacrificial Altar, another epic workout with a crescendo to start it into motion. I didn't know what Smokey Mirror meant when I saw them live, but then I read Ernest Hogan's books, especially Smoking Mirror Blues, and now I get it. It's a reference to the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, their trickster deity, and, while Los Tricksters were a fictional band in Hogan's novel, it's not a wild stretch to imagine that they sound like Smokey Mirror playing Sacrificial Altar. It's a gem of a track, short at seven and a half minutes, and more perfectly formed than anything before it.

And, while that's enough for an 8/10 album already, we're not done yet. What's to Say underline a Black Sabbath influence, just in case we hadn't noticed it during much of the album thus far, but it does it at Sabbath's speed here, slow and doomladen, before the bass goes hyperactive and both guitars start to shred psychedelia. It's another strong song on an album full of strong songs and it has to be said that I wanted that to carry on forever. However, this avoids overstaying its welcome by wrapping up with a brief Latin solo guitar exploration called Recurring Nightmare.

And, because I can, I can then just start the album again. And again. And again. I've been eagerly awaiting this album for four years and it showed up better than even I expected it to be. Now I just need to stop listening to it on repeat because I have other albums to review.

Tuesday, 16 May 2023

Overkill - Scorched (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 14 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

14th April, 2023 was quite a red letter day for thrash fans, though it was also a curse for me due to my very deliberate policy not to duplicate genres within any week. Of course that was the day the new Metallica album dropped, but I was just as enthused seeing new albums from Holy Moses and Overkill. Of those three, Metallica may have found their way back to thrash after major depatures and Holy Moses took a long break, but Overkill have kept at it throughout, diversifying their style, sure, but never truly leaving it and they always deliver live.

I have to say that I wasn't convinced by the first couple of minutes of the opening title track. It was good but not great, which is what I thought of their previous album, The Wings of War. It wasn't a bad album but I wanted more from it, because I'm used to more from Overkill, who in a whole slew of ways are comparable to Therapy? Both have their roots firmly in punk and both firmly kept their musical integrity in the face of trend changes. However, Overkill were earlier, during my formative time with music, so they're ingrained in my musical identity; they emphatically turned to metal, a retained punk attitude notwithstanding; and I kept checking in with their new material even after I drifted away from music into the demands of adulthood.

The good news is that Scorched the song picked up for me, with a neat if surprising drop into Black Sabbath territory a couple of minutes in. I particularly dug the instrumental section in the second half, with a hyperactive bass from D. D. Verni and a tasty guitar solo from Dave Linsk. I'm still not sold on it as a complete track, even after a few listens, but it does a lot that's excellent. But Goin' Home is quintessential Overkill, right down to its gorgeous escalations and blitzkrieg of an finalé that will surely have your head banging in your office chair. The Surgeon picks up precisely where Goin' Home leaves off, Bobby "Blitz" Ellsworth spitting out bars in his patented fashion. Suddenly, this album feels a lot stronger than its predecessor.

It's definitely a mixed album, but there's a lot that's good here and it isn't remotely all the same. Goin' Home and The Surgeon remain my favourite songs, but Harder They Fall is another stormer, even if the band mix up the tempo rather often. I do like my Overkill fast and every fast song here is a highlight. My other favourite, though, is Won't Be Comin' Back, which shifts firmly into power metal. It kicks off like Iron Maiden and gets even more interesting when the vocals show up. It's a new sound for Overkill and I like it. I like Wicked Place too, even though it's a stubbornly mid-pace song. There are a couple more drops into Sabbath territory and there's a neat cello to wrap up.

The other song worthy of mention is one that I'm not as sold on but it's far more unusual than the brief vocal experimentation on Won't Be Comin' Back. This one feels like a breather after a set of energetic thrash tracks, whether mid-pace or faster. Of all things, it reminds me of the Police for a minute, a much heavier approach to the Police but the Police nonetheless. It crunches in, naturally, but it stays slow, and drops back into the opening mindset as well. Kudos to the band for taking on something very different, but I wouldn't call it the success it could be.

I don't want to dismiss the other tracks, because there are a host of moments that stand out even on the lesser material. Twist of the Wick has some interesting phrasings, both on guitar and in the vocals, while Bag o' Bones has the sort of chantalong chorus that some bands would kill for. This is at its best when it's fast though, or shifting up and down between high gears, and a few songs are screaming out for one of Overkill's patented injections of speed. The one stylistic shift I'm eager to hear more of is the power metal explored in Won't Be Comin' Back that sometimes sounds like an old school NWOBHM influence but just as often more recent European power metal.

Where this leads me is an odd situation because I'm going to give this the same 7/10 rating that I gave The Wings of War. However, this is clearly a better album to me. I thought about a 6/10 when I rated that one and decided that it wouldn't be fair. Here, I often thought about an 8/10 but I don't feel it's at that level consistently enough to make that fair. So think of the previous album as a low 7/10 and this one as a high 7/10. This is something a rating out of 100 would solve but I'm not going there. Let's just say both these albums are worth your time if you're into punky thrash, but this is the one you should start with.

Therapy? - Hard Cold Fire (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 May 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Therapy? from their early days but only in passing. They were a prominent member of a new crop of British rock bands who showed up at the point that Kerrang! shifted alternative and Tommy Vance left the Friday Rock Show and I drifted away from mainstream rock music. And so I've not heard their rise to prominence, their drift away from it and their reaffirmation as a force to be reckoned with once they got old enough to sit apart from the trends. I had no idea that they were still a band, but they've kept going throughout and this looks like their sixteenth studio album. So it's about time I took a listen.

This is a short album, only just nudging past half an hour, because the average runtime of its songs is pretty close to the standard radio friendly three minutes. If that suggests a punk mindset, then you'd be absolutely right. This is alternative rock with all the energy of punk but little of the more downbeat seriousness that I've always caught in American alt rock of the same era. It doesn't feel like a band wallowing in grungy self loathing, even on a song like Joy which could easily have been called No Joy. This is a band who want to rock and just prefer to do it in an alternative framework.

I can see why this approach didn't connect with me in 1991 or 1992 but it's quite interesting in 2023. I hear a lot of pop punk here, but it's grittier and more down to earth than anything I've heard by Green Day or the Offspring. It's not so reliant on hooks, but the hooks are there. Oddly, I also hear Metallica here, but not in any of the usual ways that bands tend to employ to channel them, such as their crunchy guitar tone or James Hetfield's vocal style. However, I kept hearing moments of Black-era Metallica in shifts and breakdowns, and especially in escalations and backing vocals.

I guess the lesson is that they're happy with keeping toes in a bunch of genres, so much so that it's hard to determine what drives them the most. This isn't metal but there's a lot of metal here. It's more punk than it is rock and it often sounds like it wants to be pop music, but never to sound that soft or clean. To Disappear is so grungy that it's close to sludge, but it's stubbornly up tempo so it doesn't sound remotely like any sludge band I've heard. Andy Cairns's guitarwork often plays with dissonance and feedback, to the point that there's a subtly experimental edge.

Talking of Cairns, he's also Therapy?'s lead vocalist and he takes the opportunity to sing in a whole slew of styles. His go to style is a clean punk voice, like you might expect from pop punk, but it has more raw edge than any of the usual suspects in that genre, especially given that he clearly likes a variety of post-production jobs to suppress or torture his voice for effect, to meet a mood or a tone that he's driving with his guitar. He also has a theatricality to him that renders him the centre of attention, whatever else is going on. He even dips into sections of almost spoken word on Mongrel, which has quite a creepy effect.

While I respect a lot of punk musicians, I've always been too much of a metalhead at heart to see a punk-driven album like this as my particular cup of tea, but I'm happy I listened to it and I wonder if it'll stay with me and, if so, how much. I certainly loved the opener, They Shoot the Terrible Master, and if that isn't an esoteric yoga position it should be. I loved its urgent verses and its earworm of a chorus, from its opening drunken a capella rendition onwards. I dug Mongrel with a weaponised take on feedback and its relentless bass. Ugly is a real trip, from its weirdly folky opening.

My eighties brain still thinks of the nineties as new and it seems odd to find that its leading lights are celebrating their thirtieth anniversaries. It seems especially odd to discover that they weren't just there to jump on a trend but to help create one, so explaining their longevity. All power to this bunch of Northern Irish lads who have stuck to doing what they want to do throughout. So this isn't my favourite genre and I have next to no background in Therapy? and their peers to bring to bear. I can still see that this is clearly a good album.

Monday, 15 May 2023

Hawkwind - The Future Never Waits (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Space Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Apr 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Hawkwind have been around forever and, for the longest time, were the only band working in this space rock style. There are plenty more now, because half a century of leading a path will get you followers, especially over such a huge catalogue. If I'm counting correctly, this is their thirty-fifth studio album, if we count the albums released as Church of Hawkwind, Hawkwind Light Orchestra and Psychedelic Warriors. Of course, that also excludes pivotal albums like Space Ritual, in my book one of the greatest live releases of all time.

I'm out of date with Hawkwind, so I'm a little surprised at what I heard here. What they do is solid and smooth and apparently comfortable, even over an ambitious sixty-nine minutes, so I assume it isn't much of a stretch for the modern Hawkwind, even if it seems unusual to me. That starts with a ten minute instrumental opener, which I'd call ambient space rock, a warm up and an introduction at the same time. Skipping over The End for a moment, that continues with Aldous Huxley, a piece driven by its samples, surely of the man himself, so that it's almost performance art rather than a song.

I preferred They are So Easily Distracted to both of these, even though it takes a wilder genre shift than the opening title track, that ambient space rock track that's driven by keyboards and so feels like electronica, even though there's clearly a bass in there too. This starts out as lounge music, an odd thing to say but an accurate one, because it's initially all ambient noise and light funky rhythm and soon brings in soft jazz piano and saxophone, which makes the swirling space aura even more outrageous than usual. I'm well aware that that description suggests that it really shouldn't work but it finds a wonderful groove and we gradually forget that it's built on lounge music.

I'll go back to The End here, because that isn't merely a more traditional style for Hawkwind, it's a very old school traditional style done with a very old school raw level of production, surely with an eye for nostalgic authenticity. This song wouldn't have been at all out of place on one of those key albums from from the early seventies and could even have seen release as a single. Nothing else is that old school, but Rama (The Prophecy) walks a similar path, just with a much smoother modern production job, and there's some old school drive in I'm Learning to Live Today with a neat churning bass, even though it almost finds a reggae beat at points too.

It's good to hear that old school style, whether it's simple and raw like The End or taking it forward like I'm Learning to Live Today, but that's not the majority of the album. It goes about it in a set of different ways, but much of this seems to play with psychedelic rock in a variety of ways, whether it trawls in ambient, as on The Future Never Waits; acid rock, as on Outside of Time; lounge and soft jazz, as on They are So Easily Distracted; or even late sixties Beatles, like the piano section towards the end of The Beginning, an homage made even more overt by the refrain of "whatever gets you through the night".

While I was taken aback by some of this experimentation, from a band that I'm used to hearing set new boundaries but in very different directions, I liked this a lot. It's admirably varied, to a degree I don't recall from any Hawkwind albums from my era in the seventies and eighties, and that helps the length not feel too long. Hawkwind were always so good at finding grooves and that holds true here, even with only Dave Brock left from the classic era and Richard Chadwick on drums from the late eighties. Everyone else is reasonably new, having joined within the past seven years. Some of these pieces, especially the long ones that are either entirely or mostly instrumental, could have ended up too long had they not nailed their grooves and kept us in them throughout.

I've missed the last few Hawkwind albums, like All Abourd the Skylark, Carnivorous and Somnia, all released while I've been reviewing at Apocalypse Later, though I have tackled a couple by the late Nik Turner, their former flautist and saxophonist. After this, I'll definitely be keeping my eyes open for the next one, which, knowing them, is not going to be far away. They haven't missed a year since 2015, even through COVID, Carnivorous being an anagram of Coronavirus and that album recorded partly remotely and with fewer members. So, what's next, folks?

Crime Scene - Dark Tidings (2023)

Country: Belgium/USA
Style: Crossover
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Instagram | Metal Archives

It's time for another transatlantic week, I believe, with each day covering something from the USA and something from the UK. This is something of a cheat because the majority of Crime Scene are from Antwerp in Belgium, including guitarist PC who put the band together to tackle songs he had lying around during COVID. However, while he's known for Toxic Shock, that's the Belgian crossover band of the present day than the German thrash band of that name that I know from the eighties and nineties, so the biggest name here is surely the vocalist, Jerry A from punk band Poison Idea, who are from Portland, Oregon. So hey, it counts.

This is definitely a lot more metal than Poison Idea, who demonstrated serious chops on guitar and bass for a punk band but never pretended to be anything but straight ahead punk. These musicians behind Jerry A lay down some controlled thrash metal, mostly at a slow to mid-pace but with some faster sections, so while his voice is recognisable, this doesn't sound remotely like Poison Idea. It's part of the point, I'm sure, because he's been doing a lot of collaborative work lately that doesn't play in the style he's known for.

I do prefer my thrash fast, but this pace works for Crime Scene and it works for the punk vocals laid over the top, which is precisely how they did this. The Belgian contingent recorded all the music in October 2020 in a studio in Laakdal, but Jerry A recorded his vocals completely separately, and at a different time, five thousand miles and six months away, in Portland in early 2021. I have no idea if they knew all each other beforehand or have got together since then to play these songs live, but I have to say that it sounds like they're one band in one physical space.

As a metalhead at heart, I'm always going to be paying more attention to those metal instruments than the punk vocals, but the Belgians are mostly content to sit back and play the supporting role, generating riffs and keeping the pit moving. Dave Hubrechts gets some decent solos but nobody's spending a lot of time in the spotlight. They're there to do a job and they do it well, cleanly in the technical, often chugging style of the Bay Area. They leave the attitude to Jerry A, who seems to be on point and in the moment throughout, whatever the lyrical content and some of that definitely speaks to neither being on point nor in the moment.

It's pretty clear that Never Stop, for instance, speaks to his time in Poison Idea just as much as the many other bands who found that they may have had all the talent in the world but came up short on discipline, losing themselves in alcohol or worse. It's not a hopeful song, kicking off with a dark line, "It looks like the same, same day when I drink myself to sleep" and doesn't get more positive as it goes. It's not an affirmation song, it's an illustration of a tough reality. It doesn't offer hope, just kinship, I guess.

And the rest of the EP follows suit, this comprising five tracks and sixteen minutes. Four are short but sweet at very close to the traditional three minutes and Never Stop wraps up the EP at almost four and a half, elongated by an emphatic ending that kicks in around the three minute mark and makes it seem like we're in a warzone, with sirens, feedback, smashing glass and repetition of the title that turns it into a sort of protest chant that we shouldn't listen to when our shadows hurl it at us. It's a powerful ending to a powerful song.

And that's about it, because sixteen minutes isn't a long time to do much out of the ordinary, with the genre not known for that anyway. This is crossover, thrash metal instrumentation with a punk vocal, so it's straightforward stuff, just done capably well. I haven't heard this style in quite a long time, because the trends are more towards more aggression, with heavier groove metal behind a hardcore shout. This is old school, like the early crossover bands I remember from the New York of the mid-eighties, and I like that. It's good to hear the style again as it used to be.

Friday, 12 May 2023

Anthem - Crimson & Jet Black (2023)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Apr 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Here's another band I haven't heard in far too long. I remember Anthem from the mid-eighties as one of a slew of Japanese bands that suddenly became known to the west. Vow Wow may have hit biggest, because they moved over to England and changed their name from Bow Wow to fit better in an English speaking country, but Loudness did well and Earthshaker got noticed too. That was a good time for Japanese bands in the west and I picked up a few early Anthem albums from English record shops, four out of the first six, and they were all solid.

However, that only took me to 1990's No Smoke without Fire. They knocked out another one before splitting up in 1992, but they reformed in 2000 and, if I'm counting properly, this is their eleventh original studio album since. I say "original" deliberately, because their first album back was a sort of best of with Graham Bonnet stepping in as vocalist for one album only, Heavy Metal Anthem. A couple of decades later, Explosive!!: Studio Jam is exactly that, a COVID-era set of covers, with the support of Bonnet again along with current vocalist Yukio Morikawa.

This is a good one that showcases quite a range for a band who haven't changed their style much over the years, shimmying a little more into power metal from a heavy metal base. For a change, the representative songs aren't just the first few, but some of them are important to get a grasp on what Anthem do.

Snake Eyes is a stormer of an opener, very reminiscent of the sort of up tempo belters that Accept so often used to kick off albums. I like it a lot. Wheels of Fire isn't as heavy but it still rips and it's a much more accurate guide to what's coming. It's hard to define a Japanese flavour to heavy metal, especially when Yukio Morikawa sings in English, but it's there if we pay attention, especially in his vocal delivery on songs like this one. Roaring Vortex slows the pace a few songs in to give us a real churner of a track that ought to generate a serious pit. Its title is highly appropriate.

If you're getting an idea of what they do already, let me throw another few tracks at you to make that seem rather premature. Blood Brothers ups the tempo again after Roaring Vortex, but it's a lot sassier, almost like it's a glam metal song on speed rather than power metal done fast. I could hear a lot of bands covering this, but the ones who might do it justice are likely to sound different indeed. Similarly, Mystic Echoes sounds like a hard rock song translated into a metal style, a track that screams classic Rainbow. It got to the point where I started to imagine I was watching Ritchie Blackmore and listening to Ronnie James Dio or indeed, as it runs on, Graham Bonnet.

Oh, and then there's Void Ark, which is an instrumental showcase, especially for Akio Shimizu, who has a lot of fun demonstrating his chops on guitar. Oddly, he isn't the band member who played for Loudness—that's bass player Naoto Shibata, in between stints for Anthem—because I heard a lot of Akira Takasaki in the first couple of minutes. However, he shifts wildly into a sensitive emotional mode reminiscent of Gary Moore, which screams for our attention, and then shifts again into even more of a spotlight moment, with Shimizu's fingers shredding the fretboard.

All these things are Anthem and Anthem do all those things well. The best song here for me has to be Snake Eyes, which is a perfect way to start, but the most fun song is probably Master of Disaster and I had a lot of fun with Howling Days and Burning Down the Wall too. These are definitely more traditional metal songs but they're good ones nonetheless with top notch riffing and a thoroughly reliable rhythm section in Shibata, the only founder member left in the band, and drummer Isamu Tamaru, who's top notch throughout without ever showing off, yet another reminder of Accept.

What's perhaps most notable is that this doesn't feel like another album in a long string. Anthem are hardly reticent about stepping into the studio. This comes four yers after Nucleus, but that's a sign of COVID messing up everyone's schedules more than anything else. They haven't gone more than three years without an album since their reformation in 2000 otherwise. Maybe it's stronger than the last few, which I haven't heard, because they've had longer to put it together, but maybe they're just this good all the time. It's not groundbreaking, but it's damn solid throughout.