Wednesday 8 November 2023

Soulkick - Hide the End (2023)

Country: Argentina
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

Lead vocalist Pablo Zuccalá kindly sent me a copy of Soulkick's debut album a couple of years ago. I was happy to review it and they were happy enough with what I said about it to send me the follow up. I'm glad that they lived up to the title of that debut, No Turning Back, because this is a slightly more mature version of the same thing and it sounds very good indeed. They hail from Argentina and play a contemporary form of hard rock that's rooted in the classic rock era but with touches of more modern alternative rock, toned down a little here in favour of glimpses at prog metal.

The word of the day is elegance, starting with the mix, which is absolutely pristine. That's elegant riffing to kick off Sign of the Times and a powerful back end to punctuate it. Soulkick remain a four piece band, so the bass of Charlie Giardina is easily identifiable throughout without dropping the sound into bass heavy mode. I liked that about the debut and I like it even more here. Zuccalá is a little reminiscent of Geoff Tate on this song and often throughout the album. He doesn't have the same range, of course, because precious few singers do, but he drops impressively low on Empty Faces given how he's much higher everywhere else, and he never stretches beyond his limits.

If there's a flaw, it's in how he sometimes tries a little too hard to emulate other singers or styles when he could have remained in his own style just as effectively. He doesn't need to, but it's easy to tell when he does. Empty Faces, for instance, may start out almost like an Outlaws song, but it quickly becomes a Metallica ballad with a grungy filter over it, mostly because of the vocals. I preferred The Rope, which starts out with riffage reminiscent of Motörhead but on which Zuccalá doesn't remotely try to sound like Lemmy. The riff remains, however, and it builds and even ends like a Motörhead song.

It's always interesting to try to figure out Soulkick's influences because guitarist Christian Vidal is also Therion's guitarist and has been for well over a decade now, but there isn't anything here of their sound. Instead, they draw from AOR, classic rock, NWOBHM and alt rock, and much of that is in the guitarwork. There's some Scorpions in Sign of the Times, especially during the solo, and Van Halen in Last Goodbye and Reasons. Make Believe ups the heaviness with a neat bass riff to start and there's an even heavier riff halfway through Carved in Stone.

Sometimes, of course, what I hear, isn't necessarily something that I could fairly call an influence. While those nods to Metallica and Motörhead are clearly deliberate, Last Goodbye shifts into high gear with a riff that reminds me of Jan Cyrka's Western Eyes, an instrumental that Tommy Vance used as backing music on the Friday Rock Show. Instead of Tommy's urgent voice running through another rock chart, though, this softens up a little for the sung parts and heavies back up for the instrumental sections, an approach that they employ on many of these songs. I don't expect that Soulkick tuned into the Friday Rock Show or heard Cyrka elsewhere, of course. It'll be coincidence.

Once again, there are no bad songs, merely those which connect better than others on a personal level. I happened to appreciate the attitude of Perfect Day, the sassiness infusing Reasons and the heavy riff in Carved in Stone, but you may focus on other details and be just as right as me. There are no definitive answers, just individual tastes. I might suggest that Voices in the Night and On the Road are the least interesting songs on offer, but I have to add that the former is almost textbook solid. I could see that being someone's favourite song of the eleven on offer. It just doesn't aim to do anything fancy because it doesn't need to.

My favourite song surprised me because it's the most alt rock song here, namely The Lighthouse. I heard that influence a lot on the debut and it's less evident here, but The Lighthouse is an alt rock song, even if it's clean and nuanced, especially in the vocals. Zuccalá betrays a slight accent there, but it just adds a subtle exotic flavour because he chooses to sing in English throughout, similarly to someone like Klaus Meine. Sure, we know English isn't their first language, but they're fluent enough to deliver and intonate effectively. Those accents add rather than subtract.

I have no idea how well Soulkick are doing down there in Buenos Aires or internationally, now that the internet has shrunk the world. Based on their first two albums, they should be doing very well indeed, thank you very much. I hope that's the case. Now, how about album three in 2025?

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Ozric Tentacles - Lotus Unfolding (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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This is the sixteenth studio album for the Ozrics and surprisingly the first that I've reviewed here, because I missed 2000's Space for the Earth, though I did cover Ed Wynne's solo album, Shimmer into Nature, a year earlier. The core of the band nowadays seems to be Wynne, who's been there since the very beginning in 1983, and his son, Silas Neptune, who wasn't even born then, but who joined the Ozrics in 2009. Also in the current line-up is Vinny Shillito, who has been their bassist a couple of times before going back to 1990 but who rejoined this year.

If you haven't heard the Ozrics before, this is as good a place as any to be introduced to what they do, which is an enticing and unique combination of sounds. They play instrumental rock, but with a keyboard presence as fundamental as the guitar, individual pieces of music often moving from one to the other. Sometimes they seem to play entirely synth-driven landscapes, only for the electronic clouds to part so that an electric guitar can emerge from them and suddenly they're a guitar band again with us focused on the soloing. Needless to say, this is usually seen as psychedelic rock.

The thing is that there's a lot more in this sound than just keyboards and guitars. There are points when the Ozrics play space rock, as on Deep Blue Shade and midway through Crumplepenny, when Hawkwind inevitably spring to mind. However, they're looser and less driven, because they take as much from world music and new age as they do from, say, the Grateful Dead and Tangerine Dream. There is a drummer in the band, who's Pat Garvey, debuting for the Ozrics here, but there's also a lot of drum programming, so Storm in a Teacup opens up the album sounding more like pop music than rock. Of course, it soon develops into something deeper and more complex.

You probably won't be surprised that these pieces of music tend towards length. Storm in a Teacup runs nine and a half minutes and it's not the longest track on offer, Crumplepenny almost reaching ten. The shortest, Deep Blue Shade and Burundi Spaceport, are still over five. However, it covers a lot of ground. From that pop intro, it becomes a lively psychedelic rock track, but there's prog and space rock in the mix and it also moves through jazz and funk before it wraps. Like any good Ozrics track, it's all about immersion. You can lose yourself in these pieces of music like you're in a jungle and you haven't seen the sky in a couple of hours, but you're OK with that.

Each of the six tracks here works that way, but they explore different jungles, if you'll allow me to stretch that simile. It's not a bad word to use for Storm in a Teacup and Deep Blue Shade anyway, because they're both bright and warm and rich. If we could turn them into visuals, jungle wouldn't be inapplicable. However, Lotus Unfolding, befitting its title, is far more open. It's slower and far more interested in wide open space than dense jungle. Saskia Maxwell's flute takes the lead and we feel like we can see forever, even though life is bursting into bloom all around us. It gets richer and denser as it goes but the keyboards never stop emulating flying creatures.

That may suggest that immersion into Ozrics tracks is immersion in nature and that's roughly fair, the greens all over the cover art entirely appropriate, but it's not always the case. Crumplepenny feels far more artificial because it plays with odd sounds and rhythms that feel man made. It's not remotely industrial in tone, but it does the same sort of thing that industrial does, especially early on, in a new age kind of way. Also, when the guitar solo shows up three minutes in, it sounds like a guitar solo rather than a bird or a treetop or a meandering stream. Again, of course, it evolves to something more organic, adding some space rock in the process.

Oddly, while the titles of Green Incantation and Burundi Spaceport might suggest which way they lean, that's not entirely true. The former has artificial aspects in addition to organic ones, while the key word in the latter is Burundi rather than Spaceport, as it dips neatly into African rhythms. It all highlights just how diverse the Ozrics can be within the framework that they defined so long ago. It also highlights how much there is on this album to discover, once you've allowed it to wash over you a couple of times without digging deeper.

As with so much of the Ozrics' output, this is immediately accessible but also neatly immersive. It's not the best album they've ever put out, but it's consistently strong even if there isn't a standout track. Maybe that's why it's consistently strong, because whatever these songs are doing, they end up working well together and we end up happy for three quarters of an hour. Of course, if you're a fan of the Ozrics already, you don't need this review. If you haven't heard them before, dive in and see what you think. If it's up your alley, then there's quite a back catalogue for you to explore.

Diabolic Night - Beneath the Crimson Prophecy (2023)

Country: Germany
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives

Diabolic Night have been around for a decade now and they released their debut in 2019, but they are new to me. They're Germans, based in North Rhine-Westphalia, and they play a combination of black and speed metal. I'd lean towards the latter as the primary component, because they sound old school when they play up the speed, more like a proto-black metal band. They often sound like early Whiplash with a veneer of black metal laid carefully over the top. However, many songs also feature sections where they tone down the speed and these have a tendency to feel far more like atmospheric black metal. Check out the beginning to Pandemonium for a great example.

Unusually for black/speed metal bands, Diabolic Night write longer tracks, all eight on offer here passing four minutes with a pair of more epic tracks that respectively approach seven and exceed eight. That allows them to set the stage on a track like Pandemonium, before launching into high gear to blister at us. It also allows them to take their time during the midsection for instrumental breaks. It's this structure that sells them to me, because it combines the blitzkrieg of black/speed metal with a more substantial proggy NWOBHM edge that I highly appreciate.

Each highlight for me does all of those three things, Pandemonium perhaps being my favourite of these tracks, with Voyage to Fortune close behind and pretty much everything else not far behind that one. Starlit Skies adds a couple of minutes, which doesn't remotely make the song too long; it simply blisters for longer in its core section and boasts a longer atmospheric outro. However, that song is followed by Vicious Assault, which ditches those extra subtleties and immediately finds top gear, reminding again of early Whiplash but with a Kreator-style chorus. It's the shortest track on offer at 4:12 and that makes a lot of sense.

Interestingly, they're primarily a one man band, that one man being Kevin Heier, owner of Mortal Rite Records, who performs as Heavy Steeler. He sings lead and plays all the guitars and bass, with occasional addition of synths. The only other musician in play is Christhunter, who may or may not be an actual member of the band as against a session hire. The generally reliable Metal Archives lists him as session only, but he served this role on both albums. It's telling that his approach is an old school speed metal one, rarely dipping into the traditional blastbeats of black metal.

I would guess that Heavy Steeler thinks of himself as a guitarist rather than a vocalist, because he shines brightest in that role, never feeling like he's overstretching himself, even at his fastest, but I rather like his vocals. They're raspy and deep but they're also mostly intelligible, so they're closer to thrash vocals than anything from black metal. He never shifts into growls or shrieks, though he does throw in a few death grunts here and there, underlining that there's a Celtic Frost influence here, along with Whiplash and early Bathory.

They collectively place the sound in the mid eighties but the slower sections are a little earlier. In songs like Starlit Skies and Arktares Has Fallen, they often reminded me of Paul Di'Anno-era Iron Maiden, of songs like Remember Tomorrow. That all works for me, because these are some of my favourite eras in metal, after the classic and prog rock of the seventies had been infused by punk energy and then started on the roads to extreme metal. I wasn't immediately sold on it, because Revelation is a long intro and Tales of Past & Mystery is my least favourite track proper, but it grew on me with repeat listens and The Sacred Scriptures and then Pandemonium were able to bring me firmly on board.

I don't believe Heavy Steeler plays with anyone else, but his tastes here make me wonder what he puts out on Mortal Rite. The only release I've reviewed here at Apocalypse Later is Lynx's Watcher of Skies, which I enjoyed, but as a hard and heavy band, they're at the lighter end of Mortal Rite's spectrum, which primarily revolves around speed, thrash and black metal, with those elements in combination more often than not. I should check out more.

Monday 6 November 2023

Cirith Ungol - Dark Parade (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia

Cirith Ungol have only been back for a few years now, having reformed in 2015 and played the first gig in their new incarnation in 2016, with four previous members of the band in the line-up, Jarvis Leatherby joining on bass at that point. However, they released a strong and very heavy album in 2020, Forever Black, and followed up a year later with a solid EP, Half Past Human. COVID over, it's time for another album and Dark Parade continues in the vein for which they're well known. I hope to hear more but the cracks are starting to show: Jim Barraza, who plays guitar again here has apparently left the band and I hear that they're about to retire from live performances.

I liked Forever Black a lot and relish any new release with Tim Baker's unmistakably raucous voice. There are bands who try to sound commercial and bands that try to sound extreme. Baker is more extreme than most of the latter and he isn't even trying. It's just how he is. It's a huge voice and it tends to feel louder than it is, however loud you happen to be playing his music. He hasn't lost any of his power over the years and, if anything, he's just as good today at sixty-seven.

This album isn't as good as its openers, but for a while it's an absolute belter. Velocity (S.E.P.) is an impressive opener, up tempo for Cirith Ungol with a guitar solo to lead off. It's precisely the sort of song to open a live set because, if the audience doesn't respond to this, then they're probably not going to respond to anything. Relentless is more like what I expect from this band, slow and heavy but with melody and drive. There's Metal Church in this one and Metallica but there's also plenty Accept. And yes, I'm well aware that Cirith Ungol predate all of those bands, having been formed as far back as 1971.

Nothing else matches those two, but there are some wonderful moments. There's a nice flamenco guitar on Sacrifice, not only as an intro but also within the song itself. Baker is on fire on that song too, its slow and impeccably heavy pace tailored to his recognisable raucousness. Talking of vocals, there's a joyous contrast on Down Below between Baker and an unknown female voice. It isn't the usual beauty and the beast contrast between a clean soprano voice and a harsh male one because it's a very different contrast between elegant calmness and unconstrained roar. The title track has a contrast all of its own, as it's a heavy one indeed mixing old school riffage with Baker's extreme voice, like Cronos singing for Black Sabbath.

Even the lesser songs shine at points. I'm not much of a fan of Sailor on the Seas of Fate, which has a monotone heaviness to it, but I'm certainly a fan of its instrumental sections, not just the pair of bookends but a stretch of a couple of minutes during the midsection too. Those are great changes and I could listen to that sort of thing all day. There's a gem of a guitar solo on Looking Glass, even if it feels a littleshoehorned into that particular song, and there are excellent riffs littered around the later songs, like Distant Shadows, Down Below and the title track.

This ought to play very well to existing Cirith Ungol fans, because it does everything they want the band to do and it does it well. Sure, it's a little top heavy, the pair of standout tracks being the two that kick it off and only Sacrifice, wrapping up the first half, coming close to them. It's that pair I'd certainly suggest to people who have never heard of Cirith Ungol before and want something very heavy indeed but not technically extreme. If they can deal with Baker's voice, then the band would have new fans, guaranteed.

However, the second half is much more for the die hards. If you relish the full immersion into Cirith Ungol's particular brand of achingly slow ultra-heaviness, then you'll be in heaven. If you're a little more picky about variety, it may become a little tiring because the four tracks do much the same thing in much the same way and they're all taken to the limit, because, as I said earlier, Baker has a habit of feeling louder than he actually is and the band happily follow suit. This isn't music to be played quietly but you'll need good speakers to keep turning this up.

I'm on board with the heaviness of the second half, if not for stellar songs, so I'm going with a 7/10. It's a weaker album than Forever Black, though, so unless you're also on board, you'll want to dock a point off that. Whichever side you end up on, I'm happy that Cirith Ungol are back and recording new material. They put out nothing in the seventies and four albums during their initial productive spell from 1981 to 1991. Now they're reformed, they're already at two and I'm looking forward to a third, even if they may need to find a new guitarist to replace Jim Barraza. I hope they find one.

Robby Valentine - Embrace the Unknown (2023)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 21 Oct 2023
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I came to this album knowing nothing except that Robby Valentine is Dutch and he records melodic rock, which I'm always keen to review because I get sent far more metal than rock and I like to keep a balance here. What I quickly found is that melodic rock is both an accurate label and one that doesn't remotely cover it to the degree needed.

He's all over the musical map, in a very deliberate manner that echoes the approach of Queen and it's very difficult not to hear their sound all over his. In fact, if you don't realise how much Queen is in what he does on on the opener, Break the Chain, then Life is a Lesson four tracks in takes care to staple a copy of A Night at the Opera onto your forehead so you can't avoid it. It doesn't shock me, reading up on his career after listening to this album, that he's recorded an array of Queen tribute releases. Any other comparisons I could conjure up, like Jason Bieler, share the same influence, so it really goes back to them.

What's important is that he does this very well indeed. In addition to writing the music and lyrics, he plays all the instruments and sings all the vocals, except a few overlays like the harmony vocals of Johan Willems on Never Fall in Line, a scream on Roll Up Your Sleeves that seems like a sample and a chorus deepening Break the Chain. This is emphatically all his work, not merely as a musician and a performer but as a creator too. He has a singular vision of what he wants to do, which I think likely starts with something small like a phrase, a melody or a rhythm, and builds it into something majestic.

Sometimes, as on Roll Up Your Sleeves, it's all three of those things at exactly the same time. The first thing we hear is a snippet of lyric a capella, but it's chanted in a very particular rhythm using a very particular melody and the instrumentation promptly picks up on that. The drums and guitar then echo it, drop into a solo bass doing the same thing, then the elements combine and we have a song out of nowhere, with Valentine adding details here, harmonies there and escalations to flesh out and polish the piece.

It's definitely a highlight because its hook is so catchy and it never drifts far away from it, but other songs are content to travel much further. The opener, for instance, changes often. Break the Chain starts symphonic, becomes arena rock, gets poppy and then progressive, and shifts on a dime from Journey to Queen to Styx. That chorus of voices adds action and samples underline that, initially a snippet of the Shelley poem The Mask of Anarchy and later brief and surprisingly grounded clips of speeches by conspiracy theory whackjob David Icke. There's a heck of a lot to digest in this one but it's all seamlessly delivered.

Don't Give Up on a Miracle seems overly simple by comparison but it's just a well formed pop song with a catchy hook bolstered by harmonies and orchestration. It's telling that the guitar solo isn't remotely close to the front of the mix, because, if Valentine is effectively playing every member of Queen, Brian May seems to be the one he identifies with the least. There are definitely moments in Break the Chain that sound like a May guitar, but Valentine's guitarwork here generally feels a little more contemporary in style and the most room he reserves for a guitar solo, which is on the closing title track, there's more Dave Gilmour there than May.

Of course, as a vocalist as well as a multi-instrumentalist, Valentine doesn't skimp on his Freddie Mercury. He's everywhere here, perhaps most prominently on Shadowland, but both John Deacon and Roger Taylor are often present too, perhaps both most obviously during Roll Up Your Sleeves. While the influence is so overt that I'm sure he's embraced it by now, this being at least his tenth album of original material, not counting tributes and other covers albums, it also makes for easily his most immediate songs. You can't get more immediate than Roll Up Your Sleeves and others like Don't Give Up on a Miracle, Life is a Lesson and Shadowland aren't far behind.

The catch to that is that his least Queen inspired pieces take more time to grasp. Show the Way is a decent track but it's also a subtle one that takes its time and so it ends up fading in comparison to most of the other tracks. Embrace the Unknown is a tasty closer and it's the longest song here, but it also takes a more subdued and elegant approach, so it doesn't leap out at us the way those with the killer hooks do. Clearly I need to check out more of what Robby Valentine's done over the past forty years or so, because he makes excellent music and he has a serious back catalogue.

Friday 20 October 2023

Rolling Stones - Hackney Diamonds (2023)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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"I'm not angry with you," sings Mick Jagger on the opener, called Angry, but this album feels like the product of frustration, as indeed the title suggests, Hackney diamonds being the remnants of windscreens in the street after someone's broken into cars. The Stones haven't released an album of entirely new material in eighteen years and that's an entire generation. It's good to see them getting round to it at last and especially to see them feel so urgent doing so.

Keith Richards credits the death of drummer Charlie Watts in 2021 as the point that prompted the band to get serious enough to get the job done, though they had come close enough a few times in the years prior that Watts appears on two of these tracks, Mess It Up and Live by the Sword. Steve Jordan, who's worked with Richards on many previous projects and who stepped in on the No Filter Tour in 2021 when Watts was unable to play, takes over his drumkit otherwise, working in the same style.

As with their previous album, A Bigger Bang, this often generally stripped down and raw, as if they created this album live in the studio. There are even studio comments at the end of some of these songs that highlight just how much fun they were having. In the case of Sweet Sounds of Heaven, it feels like the song actually ends but Jagger and guest vocalist Lady Gaga are enjoying themselves so much that they build it back up again. It's an infectious feeling and it helps the album. There are no bad tracks here at all but some are definitely better and more memorable than others.

The truest Stones song is that opener, Angry, which is quintessential stuff from them. It has a good beat to kick off that leads into a good riff and a good vocal line. Of course, as with most of the best Stones songs, it builds considerably and they utterly own the groove they generate. After a couple of listens, good becomes great in each instance and it starts to feel like the sort of track that could end up on yet another greatest hits album. The other track I'd call out as traditional for the Stones is Whole Wide World, which works well if we play it in isolation but is otherwise overshadowed by Bite My Head Off right before it.

And that's the angriest, rawest and most surprising song here, certainly angrier than Angry and so much so that it verges on punk. It benefits more than any other track from a live in the studio feel, right down to Jagger urging on the surprise guest bassist, who's none other than Paul McCartney. The Beatles were never just a pop band and he covered a lot of ground with later bands like Wings, but I don't recall any time in which McCartney played anything this angry and raw. He fits it so well that I want to hear more in this vein from everyone involved.

The other big surprise here is how well Sweet Sounds of Heaven works. It's a spiritual, with Jagger leading the way but Lady Gaga matching him and taking over at points. She's not the only guest on this one, as the joyous keyboards are provided by Stevie Wonder and there are contributions from Ron Blake on trumpet and James King on sax, even if the latter is more prominent much earlier on a song called Get Close. King steals that song, to my mind, because Jagger's vocal lines aren't all free and easy, some of them feeling a little forced.

Given that I've already mentioned a punk song and a spiritual, I should add that other genres are represented here too. Dreamy Skies is a laid back country ballad, Mess It Up has a funkier edge and Rolling Stone Blues, which feels like a bonus track rather than a closer, is the blues cover you might expect, stripped down all the way to Jagger and Richards. They're all decent songs, but I wouldn't call any of them essential, unless you have a particular vested interest.

For instance, if you're an old time Stones fan, you might appreciate Watts being on Mess It Up and Live by the Sword. You might also appreciate that the bassist on the latter is Bill Wyman, who last recorded with the Stones during the previous millennium. They're both decent songs, the former a funky one and the latter more subtle but built well. You might also appreciate that Richards sings lead on Tell Me Straight, but he underwhelms, especially when contrasted with Jagger and Gaga in the following track. If you do, you'll want to go straight to them. Otherwise, you'll find the best of this album elsewhere.

Poludnica - Poludnica (2023)

Country: Slovakia
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 15 Sep 2023
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

There are few things I like more than to discover a new folk metal band and here's one who play in the vein of Bucovina, a favourite of mine, though Poludnica aren't as heavy. They hail from Trenčín, which puts them quite a way from Bucovina because Trenčín is in the far west of Slovakia and Iași the far east of Romania, with a good chunk of Hungary in between. However, both play folk metal in the Balkan style with warm metal under the folk elements. Those are more evident here because they're not only explored in voice and melody but with folk instrumentation, primarily flutes and violins but also a harp.

Those are obvious from the outset, with the flutes of Zuzana Gregušová leading the way, as indeed they do on so many songs. They're a highly prominent instrument here, so much so that there may be as many solo flute sections as on guitars, often with the violins matching the flute melodies. In either case, the backdrop is a little subdued, the riffs certainly there throughout but low enough in the mix that we can almost believe that they're bleeding through from the next studio over, as the soloists and vocalists play in the primary one without walls to suppress them.

That backdrop is utterly reliable, whether it's chugging along at mid-pace, perking up for a song as lively as Medovina to prompt us to dance, even if we're sitting down, or ramping up the tempo for a belter like Slnovrat. However, it's always content to remain in the background, rather like a good friend whose presence elevates the day even if they're not prominent in conversation. The closest the riffing comes to the foreground is Krajiny, or Countries, a plaintive rock ballad, as if the lead is pleading his case, probably to a girl rather than a court, and so the lead elements are toned down. There are also wonderful bass runs on the opener, Za duše padlých, or For the Souls of the Fallen.

The primary lead element is the voice and there are three singers here. The lead for the majority of the album is Anton Chochlik, who sings in a rough but accurate tenor, almost always singing folk melodies rather than rock. The other two are backing singers, though one of them takes more of a prominent role in Medovina, or Mead. That's a lovely and lively song, as the title suggests, and it benefits from more of a female presence at the mike. At various points during other songs, these female voices echo the male, more like co-leads than backing vocalists.

I should mention that all these people work double duty. Chochlik is one of a pair of guitarists with Adrián Perrot, though I don't know how they divvy up lead and rhythm duties. Presumably both do both. The backing vocalists are Gregušová, who also plays the flutes and adds harp, most obviously on the title track, and Martina Oriešková, who also plays violin. It's these three who dominate the album, against that reliable backdrop. The guitarists do get solos, albeit not as many as we expect because they're divvied up with the flutes, and Vladimír Krabáč's bass only claims the spotlight on that opening track.

That leaves the thoroughly reliable Michal Košúth on drums, who perhaps shines brightest on the closer, Slnovrat, or Solstice, which feels celebratory and so gets more ambitious. He starts out fast and then gets interesting, both through fills and odd rhythms. While this is the only track where I found my attention specifically following what he was doing, his work feels effortless, whether he plays fast or slow, steady or intricate.

I'd love to hear more Balkan folk metal, which often feels as authentic as it gets, as their melodies feel old. The Celtic style is appropriately popular but it's also commonplace. More niche folk styles get attention as much for being niche as for being interesting, the Hu being one great example of both. Balkan folk metal sits in between, not as well known or as well heard but still almost seen as a default sound, less worthy of mention by those seeking something new and unusual.

While I may never find a Balkan folk metal album that connects with me as well as Bucovina's first, Ceasul aducerii-aminte, I'm eager to find something that comes close. This doesn't, but it's still an excellent debut and I look forward to the next album from Poludnica, especially now that I see that they've added a bagpipe player to their line-up.

Thursday 19 October 2023

Nervosa - Jailbreak (2023)

Country: Brazil
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 29 Sep 2023
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's only been two and a half years since I reviewed Nervosa's fourth album, Perpetual Chaos, but a lot has changed with the band since then. Traditionally a trio, they were a four piece at that point, with Prika Amaral the sole remaining founder member. She's the band's guitarist and has been for its entire run but, soon after Perpetual Chaos, Helena Kotina joined as a second guitarist. Amaral was also the lead vocalist for year when the band was formed in 2010 and now she is again, as Diva Satánica left in 2022. The rest of the line-up shifted too, as bassist Mia Wallace has been replaced by Hel Pyre and Michaela Naydenova is the latest in a line seven drummers, Nanu Villalba showing up after Perpetual Chaos and gone already.

Given such continual flux—perpetual chaos, we might say—we might expect this to be transitional material as the new line-up, half of which wasn't even in place at the beginning of the year, figures out what they want to do and how they'll do it. Well, that's emphatically not the case. They kick in hard with Endless Ambition, sounding not unlike Kreator, and they demonstrate just what they can do with two guitarists in a couple of instrumental sections that I only wish were longer. The tempo shifts a lot with some neat escalations and that continues into Suffocare too.

Both these are excellent songs but Ungrateful ups the ante and absolutely blisters. It's fast out of the gate but it gets faster and then it gets playful. There's a lot here to enjoy, with buzzsaw guitar, frantic drumming and some neat tempo changes. It may well be the best track on the album, which is why it isn't too surprising that it slows down afterwards so Seed of Death can have an intro. The best Nervosa songs are the fast ones and Ungrateful has a real competitor in Kill or Die, which is a particularly vicious old school thrash song. And then Gary Holt shows up for When the Truth is a Lie to add extra depth to the guitar sound.

It's definitely the guitars that I followed most here. I love them when they're buzzing riffs through my skill. I love them when they get elegant, as they do on Seed of Death. I love them when they do something more unexpected, the solo on the title track sounding rather like what Brian Robertson was doing for Motörhead on the Another Perfect Day album. However, I also have to call out both Naydenova's drumming, which is appropriately varied but always top notch, whether she's raging on the fast songs or adding layers to slower ones, and the solid production. This album is far more in your face than its predecessor and the drums are perfectly placed in the mix.

Pyre does exactly what she needs to do on bass without ever stealing the spotlight, so that leaves Amaral's vocals, which are also more vicious than her predecessor's. Diva Satánica wasn't without death metal in her voice, but Amaral's is harsher but still enunciated. It never quite reaches death growl territory but it comes close at points, like on Gates to the Fall. Check out her introduction to Behind the Wall to see how vicious she gets, spitting out her lyrics with fury. It all works nicely with the vicious guitars for a real in your face sound. I like this new Nervosa.

Now, I've always liked Nervosa because they tend to play their thrash fast and furious, which is how I like it best. However, they don't stay in full gear throughout, mixing up the tempos to keep these songs interesting, and rarely dropping into chug sections. I'm starting to dread them on albums of late, because so many new thrash bands seem to be happy at a mid-pace, but there's a stellar chug on Sacrifice, aided by Amaral's rough vocals that keep it from feeling too soft. There's always some abrasion in her voice and that maintains an edge on these songs even on those rare occasions that they might lose it otherwise.

Given that there were a couple of guests on the previous album and I've already mentioned one in this review, I should add that there's a second guest on Superstition Failed in Lena Scissorhands, a Moldovan vocalist who sings metalcore/nu metal for Infected Rain and more traditional hard and heavy for American band Death Dealer Union. She brings a new angle to this album, without going too far beyond Nervosa's style. Holt, of course, plays into it perfectly, so Where the Truth is a Lie is just a Nervosa song with three guitars instead of two.

This is their fifth album and I'm already looking forward to their sixth. I just wonder who might be in the line-up at that point, in addition to Prika Amaral. Keeping this line-up would not be a bad thing.