Thursday 4 April 2024

Necrophobic - In the Twilight Grey (2024)

Country: Sweden
Style: Black/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 15 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Necrophobic have been around for a long time, having formed as far back as 1989, and this is their tenth album. They're widely regarded as having a discography unusually consistent in quality and this isn't a huge distance in style from their debut, The Nocturnal Silence, that's now thirty years old. They're usually categorised as black/death metal and both those elements remain in obvious quantity from the outset, but I've always heard good old fashioned heavy metal in their sound as well and that may be a little more obvious here than last time I heard them, whenever that was. I don't recall.

Mostly, I see that in how clean everything feels and how that affects slower sections. For instance, the openers, Grace of the Past and Clavis Inferni, are generally fast songs. Anders Strokirk sings in a harsh voice, one that takes from both the black metal shriek and the death metal growl, to end up somewhere in between the two. Joakim Sterner plays the drums at black metal speed and the guitars of Sebastian Ramstedt and Johan Bergebäck mostly match it with the black metal wall of sound approach. However, there are points where both drop into a slower section and suddenly it all feels like heavy metal rather than anything extreme.

As Stars Collide is a great example of a song that never really speeds up, so remains slower than the two openers throughout. There's also a nice churn to it, so there's an obvious opportunity to manifest the death metal aspects of the band, but they don't really seize it. It's there to a point, but Tobias Cristiansson's bass never deepens it far enough for the death to really take hold, slick production keeps it very clean and so it feels like an up tempo Iron Maiden section, merely with a harsh vocal over the top. When Strokirk steps back for an instrumental section, it's easy to forget we're listening to an extreme metal band.

At the other end of the album, Maiden return on the title track, because the melodies as it wraps up feel reminiscent of synth era Maiden, merely with faster drums and that harsh voice. The song after it, the bonus track on some editions, is a cover of W.A.S.P.'s The Torture Never Stops, and it's completely at home with the original material before it. In fact, while it's heavied up through the harsh vocals, it's also deepened but slightly softened by added keyboard textures. It's actually an excellent cover but it helps to underline the roots of the album in eighties heavy metal. Tellingly, Stormcrow isn't much different, even if it's more frenetic. Even the chorus sounds familiar.

Perhaps the most death metal song here is Shadows of the Brightest Night, but it still feels more black than death and adds some progressive metal in there too to make the result rather perky. It's an impressive song and it continues to be for seven and a half minutes, the longest song here outside the eight minute title track. I'd call both of them highlights, suggesting that Necrophobic are at their best when they let their songs breathe. Both of these find wonderful grooves and are able to milk them so that the longer running times don't seem longer at all.

As I wrap up this review, I keep wondering if readers will interpret what I've said as suggesting an overt softening of the Necrophobic sound and I want to underline that that's not what I'm saying. This is heavy, often extreme stuff and the band haven't remotely forgotten their origins. It's just that, if we let it flow over us, we can leave with the impression that it isn't as extreme as it really is. Compare this to Belphegor, Vulcano or Behemoth and it's not going to seem quite as vicious or quite as as raw. It's going to feel slick and even commercial. However, it's just as frenetic and just as powerful. And it's going to feel more accomplished, because the slickness is in the songwriting too. The more I listen to this, the more extreme I really it is and the more I like it.

Neon Rider - Destination Unknown (2024)

Country: Argentina
Style: Melodic/Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook

Neon Rider was founded by a couple of guitarists and that's apparent from the title track, which is the intro that opens up the album, a sub-minute long piece told entirely on guitar. We can feel the eagerness in that intro and also as the first track proper, named for the band, kicks in. Sure, Bruno Sangari delivers a strong clean vocal and guitarists Hernan Cattaneo and Marcos Nieva Green add precisely the riffs the song requires, but it's the eagerness that drives it all and I couldn't wait for the solos, because it feels like the performers can't wait for them too. It's a moment of release, as if the musicians have been restrained for a while and can finally just let rip.

Much of the joy here is in that release, because the constant battle in the majority of these songs is between the urge to go wild and jam for an hour and the need to exercise restraint to flesh out this music with verses and choruses and hooks and all that nitty gritty stuff that makes songs. On every song there's restraint but we can feel the energy gradually building until the moment they can simply let loose, mostly through another guitar solo. I can't remember the last studio album I've heard that feels as joyously alive as this one does, especially during its first half. That sort of energy is usually reserved for live albums.

The style is hard rock but with strong roots in melodic rock. Neon Rider and Feel the Magic adopt the latter a bit more than Unleash Your Fire and I Lay My Life in Rock and Roll, because the album builds throughout its first half. Those are the first four tracks and each of them is a touch heavier than the one before it, albeit never losing focus on the melodic rock at the core of them all, even though Cattaneo and Green like to bulk it up with the guitars.

While this is hard rock that will play very well to melodic rock fans, I'm not shocked in the slightest to discover that both Cattaneo and Green also play in a power metal band called Amma, while the former is also in a second power metal band, Edenlord. There's a distinctively metal approach to what they do and, at their heaviest, the result sometimes feels like a hard rock take on Japanese heavy metal bands like Loudness or Bow Wow/Vow Wow. Of course, Neon Rider are nowhere near Tokyo, instead hailing from a different capital, Buenos Aires in Argentina, and it's an interesting approach to music that otherwise owes a lot to the heavier end of Journey.

Those heavier songs are mostly on the first half, with Unleash Your Fire being my favourite in that vein, but there's a return to power at the end of the album because Riders of the Night wraps the show up with some major emphasis. The bulk of the second half, after the edgy guitars of Compass Rose but before that emphatic closer, holds things back more, hearkening back to the openers but taking it a step further. Surreal and Standing by the Edge are a little softer and One and Only is an outright ballad. What's important is that, while the the urgency drops a little, it's still there and I particularly like the guitar solos in Standing by the Edge with their lovely liquid tone.

I'm not a huge fan of ballads, but I have to underline that those liquid guitars elevate this one and a ramp up a minute and a half in doesn't hurt either. It moves from ballad to power ballad, but it's a good one. Other touches that I liked here include the riffs in I Lay My Life in Rock and Roll, which reminded me of Randy Rhoads on early Ozzy albums, and on Riders of the Night, which are vicious by comparison, reminding more of Iron Maiden's Back to the Village. This closer ends up as one of my standout tracks, not merely because of the guitarwork but because of the interesting use of a children's choir, which includes some of the band member's children.

I don't see a lot online about Neon Rider, who only seem to have a Facebook page that's still new enough to not have a friendly url, but I'm guessing that'll change as they establish themselves. It was good to hear them on Chris Franklin's essential melodic rock radio show Raised on Rock and I expect that they'll travel a lot further than that too, with a sound that's rock but nods to metal, a sound that's also polished but also retains an edge, a sound that's clearly well produced but still bursts out of the speakers with sheer energy. I'm presuming this is their debut album and it does a solid job of pointing the way to the next one. Their destination may be unknown but they seem to know where they're going.

Wednesday 3 April 2024

Bruce Dickinson - The Mandrake Project (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2024
Sites: Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Wikipedia | YouTube

This is a strong album from Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, his first in nineteen years, his previous solo release being Tyranny of Souls in 2005 and his first album since Maiden's Senjutsu in 2021. It's clearly heavy metal but with an emphasis on heavy rather than speed; it flirts with doom and doesn't remotely sound like Maiden except in certain moments when his immediately recognisable voice falls into the sort of patterns that we know from so many Maiden albums. It's patient stuff and while the hooks seem good on the first time through, it requires multiple listens to truly appreciate them.

It's clear that Bruce and his colleagues are on form in the opener, Afterglow of Ragnarok, which is patient heavy metal. Many Doors to Hell follows suit and then Rain on the Graves escalates things as the most immediate song on the album. This becomes an obvious highlight the moment Bruce starts to tell its story and it's very much a storytelling number, the instrumentation falling back to allow him to effectively tell us to pay attention while he recounts what's going on with utter relish. It gets better as it goes too, so I'm not shocked that it was the second single except to note that I don't know why it wasn't the first. That was Afterglow of Ragnarok.

He doesn't stay in storytelling mode throughout, in the sense of inviting us to his campfire so that he can have us hang on every word, but he's back there for Eternity Has Failed later in the album. This one opens up with flutes and ambience, as if we're on a battlefield after all the fighting has been done. Something epic happened here and we're eager to find out what. Story is important to this album though, because this isn't just a record; there are comic books within the package too, but I haven't read them so can't speak to where they take proceedings and how they all tie to the lyrical content of these songs.

Mostly, what I caught from the music is a epic approach, which shouldn't surprise for the singer in Iron Maiden but this is a very different sort of epic. Even Sonata (Immortal Beloved), the nigh on ten minute closer, a Maiden trademark, doesn't feel remotely like Maiden. This is more old school heavy/power metal, built on hooks and themes rather than stories, and it's a haunting example of that style, with Dickinson repeatedly pleading, "Save me now!" with some huge emotional impact.

There are also sounds here that wouldn't normally sit in heavy metal but play into that epic feel. Those plaintive flutes that kick off Eternity Has Failed have a Native American flavour to them as well as a Japanese one. Resurrection Men opens up like a spaghetti western soundtrack. Fingers in the Wounds adds some middle eastern textures that work wonderfully, even though everybody and their dog is throwing those into metal songs nowadays.

There's another touch that I wasn't expecting. Face in the Mirror starts out softer and stays there but Shadow of the Gods, which starts out softer too, doesn't. When it eventually ramps up during its second half, it gets angry in a very modern way, almost channelling some nu metal for a while that I wasn't expecting from the air raid siren, a nickname he lives up to often here, soaring above the music in a way that only he can. He doesn't need to get trendy and he generally doesn't, but a moment in Shadow of the Gods does go there and somehow it works.

In fact, everything works here. This is a deep album and we know that from moment one, because it feels inherently deep and epic and meaningful, but we also have a feeling that it's a lot deeper than we might initially think. I liked it on a first listen, but I liked it more on a second and I have to move on after maybe five or six times through with me liking it progressively more each time but with a strong feeling that it hasn't reached its peak for me yet. I'm going with an 8/10 but it could well warrant a 9/10.

Maybe I'll get a chance to come back in a few months and see. For now, I'm staying at 8/10 because some of these songs still feel like a step above the others. I'm thinking the two bard songs, Rain of the Graves and Eternity Has Failed, then the closer, Sonata (Immortal Beloved), which may well be the best of them all. Nothing else lets the side down, but nothing else touches those three either. Maybe in time they will. Mistress of Mercy is already thinking about it.

The Great Alone - Perception (2024)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 26 Jan 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

Here's a fascinating debut album from Switzerland, which is most of what I know about The Great Alone. I don't know where in the country they're from and I don't really know who's in the band, a couple of names being all I can find: Murielle and Vincent. Clearly that's Murielle singing, so does that mean that Vincent handles all the instrumentation or do they split that up between them? I don't know and I'd love to, but for now, they're Swiss, this is their debut album and it has a unique sound that I rather like.

As they've stated in interviews, they take the sheer power of metal but present it through a rock structure. The result probably counts as alternative, but that's not alternative like, say, Nirvana or REM; it's alternative like Evanescence or a less theatrical In This Moment. Murielle sings clean and she has some serious power to bring to bear but there's a weight to the music behind her too, even when it's held back, as on songs like Cell, Quiet Place or Horizon, the latter of which has the most effective softer section here, I think.

All this, and occasional piano, brings a gothic feel to this material too, but not so far as to label it gothic rock or metal. There's merely a gothic flavour to their particular brand of alternative rock, just as there's an operatic grandeur at points without it ever becoming symphonic metal. Illusion may be the most overtly gothic track here, but the opener, The Call—which may be intended as an intro and may be the first track proper but which really works as both—has a Sisters of Mercy vibe to it. Whatever else it is, it's a statement of intent, but with a ruthless bass, tasty rhythms and an ethnic vocalisation in the background.

I wish I knew who plays the bass here, because it kept on impressing me throughout the album. It's right there on The Call forging the groove but it's there to open up Beyond Dreams too, with some tasty rhythms too. What this one does that points the way to everything to come is escalation, the one thing that the Great Alone do better than anything else. There are a host of tracks, beginning with this one, that have softer sections that build back to something heavier. Stars and Storms has a magnificent build. Cell has a strong second half, including two builds, one to the three and a half minute mark, then another after a complete drop to piano and texture. Quiet Place builds strongly too. These escalations are everywhere and they're always impeccable.

The problem some of these songs have is that their first halves, inherently softer, subtler and with more nuance than the builds that take them into something more, don't always survive the builds. They become the something before the magnificence rather than the first half of a song. That may be a little unfair, but I got so caught up in the second halves of so many of these tracks that I lost a grip on how they got there.

The most notable exception to that is the standout track for me, which surprisingly isn't the well crafted Beyond Dreams or indeed Mania, the next on the album, which continues in the same vein but with a neat drop down to something more ethereal three minutes in. Both are highlights for me, but it's Icons that steals the show, because it has a build but also has a unique sound from the outset and it totally nails its first half.

It's an angry and progressive song, compared to everything else here. Murielle has serious power and she can vary the intensity of a piece with panache, but, like the music behind her, she's always crafting material so that it's the best it can be. And that's great, but on Icons she goes far beyond that to send a message. She's angry here and whatever it is that she wants us to know, she sells it absolutely. There's even a subtle Dolores O'Riordan lilt at a couple of points and, frankly, if you're aiming to sell anger, a hint at Irish is never going to hurt. The music behind her, which starts out as a commercial take on industrial, backs her up absolutely and once again there's a joyous bassline during a neatly progressive section early on. It's a peach of a song.

While I liked this album a lot, in its details and in its sweep, Icons perhaps underlines how it could be a little more than it is. What I liked about the rest of the album was the craftsmanship of the songwriting and the technique of the musicians. It's impeccably done and when it adds an unusual touch or texture, it's even better, like the drops in Horizon and Cell, the gothic piano that opens up Illusion and the opening of Reverie, with a solid riff emerging from the darkness, where it sounds like monks are chanting low. However, it's so slick that it can lose some of its emotion, even during those magnificent builds. Icons nails the emotion.

And that's why this is a really easy 7/10 for me that made me consider an 8/10, but I can also easily see that with a little more rawness and a little less gloss, their next album could easily land a 9/10. I'm eager to see what they come up with next.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

WONDERboom - Hard Mode (2024)

Country: South Africa
Style: Funk Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It's oddly hard to find an online discography of WONDERboom, given that they formed as far back as 1996 and have been active ever since, winning awards but releasing EPs and singles rather than full length studio albums. They celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2021 with WONDERboom 25, a set of re-recordings of favourite songs from their earlier releases, but this is a new studio album, potentially their fifth to follow on from 2017's Rising Sun, and it's a wildly versatile affair.

I saw them listed as funk rock, which is as good a description as any, I guess, but they refuse to be constrained by any one genre label, even if it's as high level as pop or rock, because they're happy to play both. There's a lot of rock here, much of it falling somewhere within alternative or arena rock, but there's lots of pop here too, from across the spectrum, trawling in ska, goth, punk, even R&B. As such, it's impossible to even attempt to identify high level influences. The band obviously listen to a broad range of music and let everything they hear filter into their own sound.

The heaviest song is probably the opener, My Name is Freedom, which is an earworm of a stomp, built as much on handclaps and audience participation as guitars and drums. It seems cheap for me to throw out John Kongos as an immediate comparison, given that he was also South African, but it's there and it's overt. However, one of the softest songs is Deadly, the pop song that has an unenviable task in following My Name is Freedom and approaches that by not doing anything at all similar. Apparently, when WONDERboom started out, so far back that they were still called the Electric Petal Groove Machine, they supported Simple Minds on a South African tour. That seems entirely appropriate listening to this song.

From one rock song and one pop song, the next four mix pop and rock in fascinating ways and that ends up being a far more common approach here. Most of my favourite songs here are both pop and rock without ever really being pop rock. Alive is a tasty mix of U2 and Nick Cave and the Cure. Overground (Subway Queen) ups the U2 proportion of that but adds a Japanese melodic theme. Avalon adds some Madness in its perky ska beat, funky piano and quietly cool attitude, though it goes elsewhere for its chorus. Similarly, Miss Demeanour is commercial punk in its verses, like an Iggy Pop song but with the incessant drive of Hawkwind, the lyrics spat in bars rather than sung, but then it all goes big and clean for its chorus.

Avalon counts as the midpoint, there being eleven songs on offer and all of them being of similar length, a radio friendly three minutes and change. I like the first half a lot, wherever it goes. I'm less fond of the second half, partly because it's more pop than rock, partly because its songs have less character to them and partly because one of them, very deliberately, sparks cringeworthy memories. However, the second half wraps up with Voodoo Doll, which is both pop and rock, has character to spare and is as catchy as anything else here, the earworm opener notwithstanding.

The cringy song is Hip, which is eighties hip, sometimes painfully so, even if the words talk about an earlier time. It's firmly pop but it goes all over the place, perhaps mostly to Michael Jackson but to plenty of others, including trends that I've tried to forget. It feels like the sonic equivalent of the sort of fashion catalogue that parents bought Christmas presents from that embarrassed everyone because the trends had moved on by the time the wrapping paper came off. There's an early white rapper feel to it and I'm not talking about Blondie's Rapture or Adam Ant's Ant Rap, but the folk who dressed in pastels and pretended to be black, the predecessors of Vanilla Ice.

The songs after it but before Voodoo Doll are mostly inconsequential compared to the rest of the material here. Prodigal Son is a logical follow-up to Hip but shifting in time from Michael Jackson to Prince. Pretty Things is quieter; it's pleasant enough and it sounds OK in isolation but its Cure-esque pop doesn't enforce itself. Rabbit Hole manages a little better, but it's another subtle pop song and I was having sinking feelings by this point in the album when Voodoo Doll shows up to be the saviour of the side, a Hallowe'en flavoured Adam Ant alt rock song that's all hook.

This is about as different as can be imagined to Toxic Carnage, but I do try to cover the spectrum here at Apocalypse Later and there are wonderful songs to be found on each of these albums. It's joyous to me to move from Thrashing Over Thirty to Alive. They're both rock songs, even if they're not alike in almost any other way, except maybe in how they nod back to the eighties. It's a great time to be alive, with so much varied music easily available to a global audience online. Enjoy it.

Toxic Carnage - Praying for Demise (2024)

Country: Brazil
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

I do like my thrash metal and I especially like finding new bands from pivotal nations to the genre who play it and play it well. Toxic Carnage hail from the Mairinque and São Roque on the outskirts of São Paolo in the southeast of the country and, while they've been around since 2008, have only recently got round to actually releasing full length albums. Their debut was the ironically named Doomed from the Beginning in 2019 and this is their follow-up on the other side of COVID. Before these and between them, they put out a lot of singles, EPs and split releases, so it's not that they just sat around doing nothing.

The play a vicious brand of thrash metal that's right out of the old school Slayer playbook, obvious both in the vocals of Robson Dionisio and the lead guitar of Roberlei Cristiano and a few guests providing a lead guitar on individual tracks, the most known of whom is Jhon França of Cerberus Attack, who guests on guitar on Trapped in a Vortex, on vocals on Nuclear Addiction and also found the time to both produce and mix the album.

The band's general approach is to remain speedy, but songs like The Unholy Book and Trapped in a Vortex slow down a little and chug as much as they blister. However, slower is a relative term, with these slower songs still pretty fast compared to other thrash bands. It just means that they tend to reach three and a half minutes or so. The epic of the album is Pyramid of Death that's a breath under four, partly because of a longer guitar solo from guest Diogo Felix.

The faster songs rarely pass three minutes because they simply don't have any interest in hanging around in any sense. They blister through what they do and then they're done, ready to give way for the next song and the one after that. Nuclear Addiction gets right down to business and wraps up in under two minutes, a space that somehow even provides space for both a guitar solo and a bass solo. That's pretty impressive. It doesn't cut anything out that's inherently needed. It simply gets down to business immediately and gets out of the way when it's done.

The shortest song is accordingly the one that goes the fastest, because CxAxTx is a thrash number that flirts pretty outrageously with grindcore. It works nicely as a blitzkrieg of a song that's done in forty seconds or so, with a few more dedicated to purring, a sheer burst of energy in between a couple of those three and a half minute songs that chug along nicely. There's a guest here too but on vocals; he goes by Clark and he does a pretty solid grindcore job given that he's known instead for a melodic death metal band a gothic doom/death metal band. That's versatility for you.

As always with new discoveries in thrash metal, I'll pass a copy of this over to my youngest son who has become quite the connoisseur of the genre and has the good taste to take me to see Flotsam and Jetsam this week for my birthday. He doesn't always agree with me and he sometimes finds things that I don't notice too, but it's rare when either of us recommend a thrash album that the other doesn't appreciate. I'm pretty sure he'll enjoy the walk home from work with this blaring in his ears.

For my part, I prefer the fast songs like Thrashing Over Thirty and Obedience, which doesn't shock me at all. However, I really like Toxic Carnage chugging too, which is less expected. Often, if a band shift a lot between fast thrash and mid pace chug, I'm far more polarised about which songs I like the most. Here, there's not much of a gap in my estimation between those fast songs and slower ones like Pyramid of Death and Trapped in a Vortex. While Toxic Carnage don't do much that's new here, that glimpse of grindcore aside, they play at both tempos very well indeed.

Sure, they would benefit from some more originality, but they generate some serious energy, an essential for thrash, and I dig the guitar solos, especially the one by Paulo Almeida on Echoes of the Future, as well as the prominent bass, which is placed with perfection in the mix by França. I don't know who's responsible for that, because I'm seeing Dionisio variously listed as responsible for bass, rhythm guitar and vocals on this album or vocals and lead guitar, because he was only a bass player in the band in its earliest years from 2008 to 2010. I'm not sure which to trust. I like it, whoever's responsible.

Perhaps my highest recommendation is the suggestion that I left this album thinking that it's an obvious choice to pull out every now and again as a palate cleanser after listening to other albums by other bands that didn't do the business for me. I'll always know that this one does.

Monday 1 April 2024

The Quill - Wheel of Illusion (2024)

Country: Sweden
Style: Heavy/Stoner Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Mar 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've never even heard of the Quill before but I'm happy to have finally remediated that, even if I'm very late to this party indeed. They were formed as far back as 1986, they put out a debut album in 1989 and another ten since then, making this their eleventh. I saw them listed as stoner/hard rock, but they're heavier than that, at least on this album, making them heavy/stoner metal to me. I'm not sure if they've got heavier over time to become this or if they were there all along. I ought to check out their back catalogue to find out.

As you might imagine from heavy/stoner metal, there's a huge amount of Black Sabbath here and it's firmly from the seventies era with Ozzy Osbourne. Magnus Ekwall, who is prominent enough in the European scene to have been invited to sing on an Ayreon album, The Human Equation, has an Ozzy vibe on a lot of these songs, starting with the opener, Wheel of Illusion, which could easily be an outtake from an actual seventies Sabbath album. That holds true even when the band dip into stoner rock on Elephant Head. It's still Sabbath with Ozzy, but Christian Carlsson's riffs move away from Tony Iommi in the bridge to be more Josh Homme.

While Sabbath are never far away on any song, the Quill are far from just clones and the variety is manifested as early as the second song, We Burn, where Ekwall sounds more like Bruce Dickinson than Ozzy. That's enough to take that song in a very different direction, but the riffing isn't as old school either. L.I.B.E.R. is perhaps the wildest track here, starting out with the repeated bass note intro from Runnin' with the Devil and then Jolle Atlagic kicks in with a drum rhythm worthy of an Adam and the Ants number. Atlagic has played for bands as varied as Hanoi Rocks and the Electric Boys, so it's not surprising to hear him bring something different here.

Are those southern rock stylings in Sweet Mass Confusion (All Rise Now)? I do believe they are and the slide guitar sounds great against the heavy riffing. There's also some southern rock within the closer, Wild Mustang, though less overtly. That one features a wonderful mellow section too with a glockenspiel, if my ears aren't deceiving me, in the final stretch. There's some space rock to start out The Last Thing You Remember and my favourite song trawls in some Hawkwind too.

That's Hawks & Hounds, in which Ekwall sounds as close to classic Ozzy as you can get without ever adding an "All right now!" However, the instrumentation behind him is very different. There's the Hawkwind sound, but also an ethnic middle eastern flavour that reminds less of Hassan i Sabah, a song I've mentioned recently in my Karkara review too, and more of Led Zeppelin, something that is only hammered home by the delightful drop in the vocal melody. It just keeps on going further than we ever expect and it sounds glorious. It's almost a hypnotic song and I adore it.

There's not a lot here at that level, perhaps only the pristine sudden pause that ends the intro to L.I.B.E.R. joining Hawks & Hounds, but there's a lot that I really like, from the core sound to little touches like those drums in L.I.B.E.R., the slide guitar in Sweet Mass Confusion and the sustained epic nature of Wild Mustang. It's not just that mellow section and Carlsson's wonderfully patient guitar solo; it's the entire progression that keeps on giving. It never feels long at just under eight minutes, but it also feels as if it has a ten minute instrumental stretch in the second half that we want to immerse ourselves in.

I'm happy to have finally clued myself in to who the Quill are and I'll absolutely be keeping an eye out for their next album. Had I found them sooner, I could have reviewed Earthrise back in 2021, a typical gap between albums for them, but that should be the last new one that I'll miss. They also seem to be highly stable, Atlagic and Carlsson founder members and Ekwall and Roger Nilsson on bass having around a quarter of a century in the band each, even if they've both taken breaks. It all bodes well for a twelfth album in three or four years time. Maybe I'll have caught up with their back catalogue by then. I hope so.

Moonpark - Good Spirit (2024)

Country: Czechia
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 28 Mar 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

This is a debut album and, while it sounds like a debut album, the problems I had with it started to go away when I realised some things. Moonpark hail from Czechia instead of an amusement park on the moon, which isn't quite as cool but does give them a good shot at being influenced by bands from both western and eastern Europe, as well as America and whatever travelled. They're relatively new, having formed in 2020 but this mostly sounds like it could have been released on a small record label in the eighties.

Initially, the obvious influences are American AOR bands. Dancing in a Lie opens up like a Survivor classic, with carefully placed power chords against a repetitive keyboard rhythm. Then it launches into the quintessential components of the genre: a simple but strong riff, a good melodic line and a decent guitar solo. Blinding Fire continues in much the same vein, with the addition of effective piano touches to underpin it. It's all mildly aggressive but rooted so carefully in melody that what I mean by aggression is Separate Ways rather than Don't Stop Believin'.

The weak spot for me was immediately the vocals of Michal Kolacek, but I still had a realisation to make and I didn't make that until Together nine tracks in. Because everything is so obviously AOR, I was comparing him to Steve Perry and he was coming off third best. What I eventually realised in Together is that he isn't aiming to be quite that clean. There's some nineties in his voice, whether it's a slight edge in Good Spirit that reminds of Matt Kramer of Saigon Kick, someone starting out the nineties with something a little darker before grunge took over, or a half snarl on Together like Axl Rose once he leaned into his unique voice.

Now, whether that's the right goal for Kolacek, given what everyone else is doing behind him, is up for grabs, but it has to be acknowledged to realise what he's doing. Once I did so, I heard him in a new light, one with less caveats attached to it. He certainly hits some impressive notes on Good Spirit and Blinding Fire. Of course, he's also presumably Czech but singing in English, so kudos for making it sound like he's just as fluent as I am as a native speaker. I couldn't remotely sing songs in Czech, even if I had any sort of vocal talent. He makes a second language seem easy.

After a few times through, I honestly believe that choice has a much larger negative effect on the songwriting than it does on his singing. None of the lyrics here manage to break past the generic and they get rather clichéd on the second side, especially once the ballads show up. There were a few points where I started to mentally keep track of how many eighties song titles I could identify within the lyrics. Did whoever wrote this material learn English from listening to David Coverdale numbers? Inquiring minds want to know.

If I had some issues with the vocals, even if I was able to resolve most of them eventually, I found the instrumentation solid and, lyrics aside, the songwriting does some impressive things. There's a particularly sassy riff in Kiss Me, which may well be my favourite song here. Good Spirit flows as smoothly as a Journey classic, especially once it gets to the bridge. I could even cite Abba here, as there are some effortless pop melodies too, just with that subtle edge to Kolacek's voice. Rock 'n' Roll Train had to get moving quickly with a title like that and it does. It has the fastest pace of any song here, even though it remains firmly within the melodic rock genre.

The songs in between all these are decent too, if a level below the ones I've mentioned. It's when we get to Together that it starts to go wrong for a while. If someone has written a textbook on the way to write a piano driven power ballad, they might just have copy/pasted Together onto a page. I tend to hate piano driver power ballads and I'm not a fan of this one, though I have to admit that it's unexpectedly growing on me a little on further listens. When We Were Young starts out like a piano driven power ballad too, though it does grow beyond that at least a little.

The only song in between those two is a particularly odd one. At points, Summer Night sounds like a fifties pop song. At times it sounds like a fifties pop song as covered by classic era Kiss. Mostly it sounds like a fifties pop song covered by classic era Kiss but then covered in turn by Bryan Adams, which is an odd mixture. There are clichés again, but it's decent enough and I do like its bass line, courtesy of Petr Kolar. And the only song left after them is Dawn, which returns to hard rock Journey and does it pretty well, but it feels a little out of place after the ballads.

And so this is a mixed bag for me. There are some strong melodic rock songs here, most obviously on the first side. I know plenty of people who would love Dancing in a Lie and Blinding Fire and many who would dig Kiss Me and Good Spirit. Jirka Dolezel doesn't bring anything new to melodic rock with his guitarwork, but he was consistently the standout for me; I enjoyed all of his solos to some degree and loved a bunch of them. So there's good here. The bad is mostly constrained to a stylistic choice by Kolacek that may play better for others than it does for me and the clichés that leap out from the lyrics. I wonder if they'd write more substantial lyrics if they did so in Czech, but that wouldn't be as internationally commercial, of course.

Where it ended up for me was a decent debut that sounds like a big break for a small band but an important one. The question now is how they can build on that. They've got their sound out there into the world and now they get to market it. It may be hard to get this sort of quintessentially old style material onto the airwaves but it can be done and there are stages all over Europe. I hope to see a second album in a few years time that's more mature and brings Moonpark into their own. Only time will tell.