Friday, 14 June 2019

Jimmy Barnes - My Criminal Record (2019)

Country: Australia
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

American audiences may not know the name of Jimmy Barnes, but it's one well worth looking into. I found him when he started to break into the UK market with his third solo album, Freight Train Heart, in 1987. It was a big deal, an attempt to expand his fame in Australia to the west, with a whole slew of major names backing him up, and it really should have done the job, full as it was with songs like Do or Die so powerful they seemed to come alive.

He did make a splash but never quite realised the fame he deserved in the west, but he's a superstar back home in Australia. It's difficult to point out just how big he is there, so let's just say that My Criminal Record is his twelfth number one album down under, restoring him to the top of that list again after Madonna and U2 caught him up. That's nine solo albums and three from his time as the lead singer in Cold Chisel, yet another name to track down if you're into roots-based rock led by killer vocals. And yes, they're still killer vocals, even though Barnes is now 63 years old.

He generally lends his blistering voice to no nonsense rock anthems with a lot of influences from outside the genre, not just the blues, but country, soul and gospel too. He's done a couple of albums dedicated to soul covers in his time, though this one is emphatically a rock album, often an angry one. One of the mote telling songs that he wrote here is I'm in a Bad Mood, an anthemic number that highlights his attitude this time out.

It's perhaps most obvious on Working Class Hero, a pessimistic John Lennon song clearly intended to be his take on Bob Dylan but which sounds, in the Plastic Ono Band original and even more in Barnes's hands, far more like a Steve Earle-esque alt country polemic. Lennon spat vitriol on the original but Barnes adds more of that here.

Shutting Down Our Town and Stargazer are country songs, the former written by singer/songwriter Troy Cassar-Daley. Both are rocked up here but never quite escape their heritage. My Demon (God Help Me) is a real stomper of a gospel number. Money and Class is just as much a stomper of a blues song. There's even a little surf on Stolen Car (The Road's on Fire, Pt II).

And, talking of that song, it's here twice in different forms and Stolen Car (The Road's on Fire, Pt I) may well be the best song on offer here. It's a quintessential Jimmy Barnes rocker, one of half a dozen songs he wrote here with his Cold Chisel compatriot, Don Walker. It starts subtly and builds atmosphere but becomes a real belter and nobody belts out songs like Barnes. The word 'Barnestorming' comes up a lot and has appropriately titled one of his tours.

My Criminal Record is also a long record, but there isn't a duff song here. It nudges just over an hour even before we count the four bonus tracks, two that could have made the album proper on their own merits and two alternate mixes, of Tougher Than the Rest and I'm in a Bad Mood, which are as worthy as the originals earlier on the album.

If you dig varied roots-based rock, this is essential and, if you don't know this singer, please treat it as a starting point. There's so much to find in his career and these thirteen (or fifteen or seventeen) tracks capably point in all the right directions. Frankly, he makes anything work. Just take the closer as an example. Tougher Than the Rest is a Bruce Springsteen song that could easily be sung in multiple genres: it would be a clichéd arena country song for one of those carbon copy hunks in hats or a safe, if ironic, easy listening rocker for someone like Jimmy Buffett, but Barnes makes it come alive.

This whole album is alive. Check it out.

The Lord Weird Slough Feg - New Organon (2019)

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

OK, how did I miss that a band existed with the utterly glorious name of The Lord Weird Slough Feg? I get the reference, because I grew up reading Best of 2000 AD Monthly and enjoyed Sláine as much as Judge Dredd, Halo Jones or Strontium Dog. Apparently, Mike Scalzi enjoyed him too, and took the name of Sláine's ancient and rotting Drune nemesis for his band.

They've been around since 1990, but this marks a return to their full name because they were simply Slough Feg from 2005 until earlier this year. This is their tenth album, the first since 2014's Digital Resistance. I'm really intrigued to see how they've progressed over the last quarter of a century, because a) their album ratings at Metal Archives seem pretty consistent and b) this doesn't sound like a product of 2019 at all.

It reminds me of early eighties heavy metal in two way. One is style. They play heavier than hard rock, led by metal guitars and clean vocals, both of which like power. They also seem blissfully unaware of the existence of any form of extreme metal. In their way, they're what Sabbat might have been a decade earlier. As it is, they remind of early Cloven Hoof, Brocas Helm or Ostrogoth, bands who gallop along in their own way without reaching levels of self-parody of Virgin Steele or Manowar. They'd play well with Raven.

The other is the way that they're so confident and unashamed about playing clearly unfashionable music. I don't just mean the spandex clad stereotype that leaps easily to mind but the folk elements that are inherent to their sound. They conjure up ideas of neanderthal drummers who go morris dancing on the weekends. Think miniature Stonehenge sets not wolfskin loincloths.

Of course, this would be a glorious moment to burst that bubble by pointing out that Scalzi is, by day, a college professor who lectures in philosophy, and it's easy to catch unusually thoughtful lyrics in these songs. Just dig beneath the surface and those clichés start to, well, slough away to reveal something a lot more intelligent than it initially seems.

For instance, there's a song here called Coming of Age in the Milky Way; I presume that it's based on the book by Timothy Ferris that explores how the human race has historically seen the cosmos. Certainly the album title is a reference to Francis Bacon and his 1620 volume, Novum Organum, that updated Aristotelian logic during the Enlightenment. You know, that old metal standard.

Did Spinal Tap ever wax lyrical on subjects like Being and Nothingness or Discourse on Equality, let alone The Cynic? Scalzi's totally at home here. "My friend Diogenes," he sings, "lost all sense of shame." I should point out that you need no background in philosophy or even know how to spell it to enjoy this album and it's far from a treatise. Slough Feg once recorded Traveller, a concept album about an sf RPG. They really don't care about being cool; they care about being good.

And I enjoyed this, perhaps because I'm as unfashionable as they are. They play seriously and consistently and there's a lot here to delve into beyond the lyrics. For all the guitar solos and galloping rhythms, there's plenty of folk music here, Headhunter and The Apology being but two overt examples before Exegesis/Tragic Hooligan goes beyond them. Coming of Age is an oddly Caribbean metal song and The Cynic arrives from a wild alternate universe: the vocals convey a sort of Tiger Lillies cautionary tale vibe, just not in falsetto, while the music behind it is a lot like Thin Lizzy attempting a Richie Valens song.

This admirable variety means that it's hard to pick favourites because this song may leap out on a first listen but that one does on a second and hey, that pair on a third. I think Being and Nothingness is mine for right now, even though it's almost the shortest song on offer. It's also arguably the speediest, galloping along with the drums and bass providing the hooves of horses while the guitars add their neighing. It's a delightful song and it finishes too quickly.

So does the album, but at least there are nine previous ones for me to seek out!

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Xentrix - Bury the Pain (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 7 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

It's Thursday and I haven't reviewed anything this week yet from an old band who crawled out of the woodwork with their first release in forever. I guess that means that it's time for the new Xentrix album, which they're releasing no less than 23 years after its poorly received predecessor, 1996's Scourge. I'm a fan of British thrash and enjoyed their Shattered Existence debut, so I can happily say welcome back, folks!

Well, it's mostly a welcome back. This new Xentrix, who split up in 1997 and again in 2006, are led by guitarist Stan Howard and drummer Dennis Gasser, a pair of founder members. However, the other two aren't here, though they did rejoin when the band reformed in 2013, only to leave again. Paul MacKenzie (bass) and Chris Astley (vocals/guitars) are replaced respectively by Chris Shires and Jay Walsh.

With that said, this sounds good, but it's structured oddly. From the very beginning, it's old school technical thrash with all the benefits of modern production. The band are clearly capable but there's something lacking in a few of the early songs. A couple in and I realised that they're a little too clinical, great technically but not so great on attitude. And it's the songs rather than Andy Sneap's excellent as always production.

Relistening, there are moments of attitude in there, especially during the title track which opens up the album, but the songs are unable to maintain it throughout. As The Truth Lies Buried shifts from clinical to urgent four tracks in, though, the album starts to feel ready and, sure enough, it kicks into a high gear with Let the World Burn, a blister of a song featuring plenty of in your face attitude. It's very reminiscent of Testament and that's a sound that works well for the band and for Jay Walsh's voice too, which also hints at Lemmy at a couple of points.

If it never gets better than Let the World Burn, the album generally keeps that urgency through its second half, as if it had lit up a lightbulb above the collective heads of the band. The Red Mist Descends follows suit, albeit a little more restrained at points, and so does World of Mouth. A couple more songs in and we start to wonder why we ever wanted more attitude. It's here in wild abundance!

They leave the other stormer until the end, so that Evil by Design can wrap up the album with emphasis, leaving us wanting more so that we loop right back to the beginning and play the whole thing again. Rinse and repeat. It's a good approach.

If the energetic songs make the album, some intricate intros deepen it. The best surely begins and ends The One You Fear, a neat interplay between two guitars, but there's atmosphere in the intro to The Truth Lies Buried too. The other variance I really enjoyed here was the mosh part in the middle of Evil by Design; it keeps the attitude of the rest of the song but slows it down considerably and ought to have the pit really moving. In between, the guitarwork is great throughout, with plenty of solid riffs and neat solos.

All in all, this isn't the best Xentrix album that it could be, but it's a strong album with a couple of really impressive tracks and a bunch of other good ones. Given how poorly fans took to their previous change of direction with Kin and Scourge, they should return in droves for Bury the Pain, which is old school and blistering. Like I said, welcome back, folks!

Grave Siesta - Voidward Spin (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 21 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Here's a very different doom album. It's the third full length release from Finland's Grave Siesta, who have been around since 2010, emerging from the ashes of a death 'n' roll band called Rite. I haven't heard Grave Siesta or Piss & Vinegar, but it's been relatively widely acknowledged that the sound of the band has changed over time, moving from doom to sludge.

It's certainly a very varied album. There are points where they're too fast to feel much like doom, such as the first few minutes of Vacant Throne, but there are other points where they're rather reminiscent of old Black Sabbath ballads, like the first couple of minutes of Weakness. Other tracks cover a lot of ground in between those two extremes.

There's also a raw and punky vibe here, mostly because of the occasionally tortured vocals of Taito Halonen. He's the biggest departure from the doom sound, often drifting into death territory, occasionally into black and so ending up reminding of early extreme albums before they really became their own subgenres. There's often an early Celtic Frost sound here, which I like because it's visceral and alive and uncommercial.

I liked the album, not least because this band is clearly good at what they do and what they do is their own thing. However, I wonder if Voidward Spin holds together as an album because it changes direction a heck of a lot and that doesn't help coherence. Those who expect their bands to have one sound will be disappointed here. I like albums like Saigon Kick's Water and Sheer Heart Attack by Queen that go in every different direction but somehow hold together as musical statements. This one I'm not convinced about yet.

If you're OK with vocals like Halonen's on a doom album, there's a lot here to enjoy. Vacant Throne starts fast but ends heavy, with some dark chanting in between. Intolerance is more routine but the vocals either elevate it or destroy it, depending on your preference. He shrieks and howls on this one like he's transforming into a werewolf, only to pluck a doom melody out of the air to torture with rough style.

Weakness starts soft and patient with fluid guitarwork from Sami Lintunen. Halonen goes clean here, sounding more like Nick Cave than Blaine from the Accüsed all of a sudden. When it kicks into gear, it's still Sabbath-esque except for those shrieky vocals. Bastardized finds a neat riff and Halonen tries for regular vocals; these two songs are the closest to classic doom that the band get on this album.

They're still a little fast, which is more overt on songs like Seizures in a Castle and Depopulation Prayer. At half speed, the intro to the former would be akin to Candlemass but, at this tempo, it reminds of a more raucous Saint Vitus with a hint of the Plasmatics. One riff is reminiscent of The Day of the Humans is Gone, which was only ever doom in lyrical content.

And that leaves Post World Peace, which almost feels like the epic of the album, even though it's under six minutes long and Weakness was longer. It takes its time and is surely the slowest song on offer, but it's never the work of tradition. Halonen gargles with acid before delivering a heartfelt vocal and Lintunen's guitar actually tries to match his torture this time.

I wonder about the make up of the Grave Siesta audience. They feel like one of those bands who can be seen as cool by both metal and punk audiences but they're still not remotely commercial. Some will see that as a good thing and they may get a kick out of this, especially the first three tracks and the last, but it takes an adventurous spirit to appreciate this fully.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Ihlo - Union (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Debut albums recently came up in conversation because there have been bands who truly nailed it on their first attempt. That conversation started with Van Halen, who became so influential that it's hard to realise how original that first album really was. My choice for best debut of all time would have to be Marillion's Script for a Jester's Tear, because there's so much there, it's all spot on and it ran utterly against the trends of the time.

No, Union, another debut prog album, isn't going to make second on that list but it is excellent stuff. Ihlo (no, I have no idea how that's pronounced) were founded in London in 2016 and, if I'm reading correctly, they won't be debuting live for another couple of weeks, almost an entire month after the release of their album. That seems odd to me, but it helps to highlight just how new these guys are.

The point is that they don't sound new at all, though their influences are clearly newer than the old school. They aren't trying to channel Marillion, IQ and Twelfth Night, let alone Genesis, Yes and King Crimson; they're more influenced by Leprous, Tool and fellow Brits Tesseract. The approach is for keyboards to not merely set the tone but to also take the lead and deliver melodies, while the guitars take a percussive role, combining with the drums to provide an even more powerful beat. Vocals are clean and alternative.

What this means is that everything is texture and the title track sets that goal in motion immediately. It's mostly up tempo, in your face stuff but it also takes time for a quiet section with soft vocals over minimalist piano enhanced by pulsing keyboards. Each of the textures are enjoyable but they also contrast very nicely.

Reanimate emphasises that percussive take on proceedings by providing highly repetitive, albeit slightly complex rhythms with drums and guitars while the keyboards float and the vocals explore. They're just as alternative here but there are early sections that are more nu metal. Maybe that's why this is my least favourite track on the album, even though it was their first single. I like the second half a lot better than the first. It gets more emotional and interesting.

From there, we get different takes on these approaches, but in better form. I honestly think that the album's sweep is to start decent and then keep on getting better until it wraps up with fifteen spectacular minutes of build and exploration that constitutes Coalescence. Each song has better cohesion than the last, a better sense of growth and a more patient outlook on life. The middle parts of Starseeker are a fantastic time for us to sit back and reflect on what we've heard and where it's going to go.

Starseeker is really good but Hollow is better. It's a lot more restrained than anything before it, but it knows exactly when to stop that and launch into something more overt. It's beautiful, immersive stuff and Andy Robison dominates on two fronts: his keyboards and his vocals, which move from calm to soaring. Triumph, the shortest song on offer at just under five minutes, is a good companion piece but it doesn't add anything.

Parhelion builds gloriously. It starts well but finds a real groove and has a blast exploring it; then, after a brief interlude, it shows how much more it can do. It ends beautifully too, leading the way into the epic that will finish off the album. Parhelion tells us that we're almost home again but a fifteen minute track separates us from that, because nobody wants to leave at this point. Coalescence builds even more gloriously than Parhelion with truly awesome escalations, a catchy midsection ten minutes in and a strong finale.

May hit me hard with great albums but June hasn't followed suit until now. I've only listened to this twice thus far but plan to stay with it. For now it's an easy 8/10 because four of the seven tracks are absolutely top notch, sit back and relish in the experience material. What's odd to me is they don't count the title track and the single in their number. Maybe I'll grok them later but, for now, they're hardly poor additions to an otherwise fantastic debut.

Délétère - Theovorator: Babelis Testamentum (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

Today's major review is the debut album from Ihlo, which is a soaring prog rock/metal opus that's very easy to listen to. I wanted a real contrast for my other review, something raucous and raw but still interesting and a brief search led me to this second EP from Canadian black metal band Délétère.

Apparently two bands started recording in Québec in 2012 under this name, but this is the first formed and the one who kept going (the other changed their name to Neurasthene). They have a couple of albums out and this is a continuation of an apparent self-induced requirement for them to only record in Latin. Their first album was in French but they clearly didn't want to do that ongoing, perhaps because it wouldn't help them stand out in Québec.

Délétère, which translates as either 'noxious' or 'vilified', depending on the context, play black metal with an interesting sound. Unlike many black metal albums, the production is clean and the most dominant aspect is the melodic line of the guitars that may be accompanied at points by keyboards too. It's never fast, even when the drums speed up. Those drums often fade into the mix, as do the vocals which vary a lot here, not merely including the usual shrieks but also some guttural chanting.

At eight and a half minutes, Theovoratis Aduentum is the longest track here but it opens the EP well. It's most memorable for its middle section, whose guttural chanting isn't delivered only by the band's vocalist, Thorleïf, but perhaps whichever coven decided to crash the recording session to summon a demon as the band played. Before and after that, it's surprisingly peaceful for such abrasive music, because it finds a hypnotic rhythm and rolls with it.

This track grows on repeat listens. The busiest band member is clearly the drummer, who I presume is Kaedes (though Thorleïf gets a credit for drums too). It's the guitarists who sell the song for me. They're Anhidar and G. and they're smooth when the band play fast but jagged when they slow down and the keyboards let them have the fore.

Babel Insanifusor (which may or may not mean anything at all but does sound pretty cool) doesn't include anything special at all but does maintain that hypnotic rhythm for the five minutes it lasts. It's as easy to be caught up in these songs as it is on such a wildly different album as the Ihlo debut I'm reviewing next.

That leaves Milities Pestilentiae III - Babylonia Magnissima (and I really hope that they can remember these titles when introducing the songs live), which stays fast but almost feels bouncy. It's certainly higher in pitch, with backing vocals reaching for the sky at points, but it's grounded and consistent.

Oddly, it feels more epic than the opening track, even though it's a couple of minutes shorter, but that's probably because Theovaratis Aduentum feels like two songs bookending a demon raising. Milities Pestilentiae III feels like one song, even if it's the third part of an ongoing a series (Milites Pestilentiae II: De Violatione Ciuitatis Febilis Dei was on their previous EP and the original opened up their demo, Sacrificium Necrothytum).

I liked this but it's not the raw black metal I expected. It's melodic and rhythmic, but with appropriately rough edges. Thorleïf certainly has plenty of those, as do the guitars when the keyboards don't hide them. And yeah, I think it makes for a good contrast with Ihlo.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Стожар - Холодом Битв В Объятья Зимы (2019)

Country: Russia
Style: Pagan Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Jun 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter | VK

From Bangladesh, let's wander up to Russia to check out a pagan folk metal band. Oh yeah, it's a great time to be alive! The internet is a wonderful place.

Стожар hail from Yaroslavl, four hours north of Moscow, and they've been a band since 2005, with three albums out before this one. The name translates to Stozhar, but I don't know what that means (Stozhary is the Russian name for the Pleiades, so maybe the band is named for a star cluster); the album title translates to Chill Battles in the Embrace of Winter. Now, Yaroslavl isn't Arkhangelsk, a thousand further kilometers north, but I'll trust that it still gets a bit cold during the winters for Стожар and this album would be a great way to warm up because they play pretty damn fast for a folk metal band.

The main man in the band goes by Yarosvet and he plays guitar and provides the male vocals. The rhythm section, Pavel Ivanov on bass and Sergey Glebov on drums, have been with him since 2009, which means that the new fish is a female vocalist, Evgenia Vitlugina, who joined in 2013. While Yarosvet has a raspy voice, if not raspy enough to make it to a death growl, Vitlugina has a sweet one that's also confidently powerful. They alternate lead duties on songs, rather than sing together.

They both shine on the first song, Ярость (or Rage). The backing is mostly fast and energetic and Yarosvet's voice fits that approach well. When the band slows down a little and Vitlugina gets the mike, it becomes much more interesting, not least because she's backed by swelling keyboards and what sounds like a flute but may be more keyboards. Whichever, it gets as much time in the spotlight as the guitar and that makes for two songs in one.

That continues on the title track, but the partners swap, so that Vitlugina sings over blitzkrieg backing. It's a delightful mix and I'd love to see it played live because I want to see how the audience react to it. That flute is playful creature and it clearly wants us to dance, while the rest of the band just as clearly want us to start a pit and burn off energy that way. I love the idea of an audience doing both or switching back and forth with the sections of the song.

Стожар describe what they do as 'Slavonic pagan metal' which is as good a description as any, I guess, with songs such as Славянская Сила (or Slavic Power) on the album. I have little idea what they're singing about but the song titles revolve around dancing, battles and winter. The former two are lively activities and the sheer energy that this band radiate fits them. In the rare occasions that the energy boils away, we're left with quiet piano and the sound of the wind, so the latter is covered too.

There's plenty of emotion alongside the energy. My favourite song may well be Ночи Хоровод (or Nights Round Dance), with Vitlugina's voice soaring in the sky above blistering backing that I can only assume mimics whatever the dance is. It slows down at points with some enticing keyboard work to back her, but soon speeds back up again, with Yarosvet eventually joining in the fray. The keyboards are dominant often onthis album and they make this song less like a dance and more like a tornado of death.

It runs long, seven and a half minutes, like a few other songs here. Стожар don't like to cut things off too soon and I'm thankful for that. None of the three long songs feel drawn out at all. Bizarrely, Голос Мечей (or Voice of Swords), yet another lively dance of a song, feels just as substantial when it's almost two minutes shorter. These are immersive songs and time passes differently when we're enthralled by them.

I like this a lot and haven't heard much like it, the most prominent Slavic music in my background being Romania's Bucovina, who play a very different style of Slavic folk metal. I'd love to know who else plays music like this because I feel invigorated just listening to it, so I think I'm going to be signing up for VK, the Russian Facebook, on which there seems to be a busy group called Slavonic Folk Metal. So far in June, they've posted about Ярл, Velesar, Motanka, Калевала, Orion, Sakramant and Стожар. Discovery is joy.

By the way, beware official websites. I've found two listed thus far: one doesn't exist at all and the other has turned into a porn site.