Monday, 20 May 2019

Rammstein - Rammstein (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Industrial Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 17 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I made the mistake of first listening to this album with the volume turned down a little. It wasn't quiet, merely not as loud as usual, and it taught me that Rammstein's power is more closely tied to volume than most bands. I know, of course, that they're an in your face kind of band, but the degree to which their power dissipated with just a little volume loss shocked me. Anyway, I fixed that for a second time through and immediately this seventh Rammstein album sounds like it should, even a decade after its predecessor, 2009's Liebe ist für alle da.

What it isn't is a reset, as might be suggested by the fact that this is a self-titled album, something Rammstein have never done before. Well, really it's an album without a title and, according to the fans, the match on the minimalist cover represents simplicity (and fire). The songs are no simpler than previous Rammstein songs, just as they're no more representative of a Rammstein sound than anything earlier. This doesn't replace Mutter as the best starting place to learn about the band.

As tends to be the case with Rammstein, the best tracks are the ones that are most in your face. Deutschland kicks the album off as it means to go on, with an incessant beat, strong vocals and interesting layers to bolster the focal points. This one has a slow electronic chords, a frantic guitar and an effectively varied approach to backing vocals. It's no Rammstein classic but it's a good song and a better way to start an album.

Other tracks stand out well too, especially early on. Radio features a great riff and some fun electronic noodling. Zeig Dich adds a Therion-esque choral section which works really well in this style. Ausländer features a callback in its chorus from a cute voice that sounds like it could have come from an anime. It's a lighter, more commercial Rammstein song but it's not that far away from the norm so it really doesn't matter.

The tracks that do diverge from what we might expect are a little less easy to take. Diamant is a ballad and I'm really not sold on it fitting into the Rammstein sound. Maybe it would work better if I spoke German, but I doubt it. Puppe starts oddly quiet too but it gets really raucous and I can't say that I'm fond of the overdone rough vocals once it gets going, which sound like vocalist Till Lindemann is either trying to go hardcore or just aiming to infuse his narrative style of singing with far more emotion. Either way, I don't think it works.

While the first half of the album is generally much better than the second, there's good stuff to be found towards the end. Weit Weg may just be the one classic on the album. It's in your face stuff but a well constructed backing endows it with a great deal of depth. While I found myself wanting to skip many of the later songs on a second time through, I kept replaying this one. Tattoo is another good belter in the traditional Rammstein style too.

But we leave with Hallomann, another departure that is, at least, successful in ways that Diamant and Puppe aren't. It's an odd way to end, though, and I wonder if the album would feel more coherent as a whole if it had wrapped up with Tattoo, Hallomann perhaps shifted to a separate release. It's certainly not a bad track, but it's not what we expect. That's fine, except when it's what stays in our mind when the silence hits at the end of the album.

I feel that Rammstein are experimenting a little here. They're successful in varying the backdrops for their core sound, because each of these layers is utterly different from the rest and, together, they make this album seem to be fresh and worthy. They're less successful on songs where they ditch the core sound entirely and try something new. That's where the album loses its coherence. What that means is that this is a mixed bag and I'm interested to see how it stands in a couple of years time.

Mystik - Mystik (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

I've been reviewing a lot of music lately that's clearly a throwback to the seventies, but here's an album that's a real throwback to the eighties. Just look at that fabulous cover! It's the sort of original art I tend to buy at sf/f convention art shows nowadays and I'd love to have this on my wall too.

The music enclosed inside is just as quintessentially eighties, right down to the church organ intro to Lake of Necrosis. It's heavy metal on the fast side, not far short of speed metal territory with guitars that roll on like a less vicious Sabbat or maybe Onslaught and a clean vocal from Julia von Krusenstjerna who sounds very much like a young Doro Pesch. Comparisons with Warlock will seem obvious but they're not too accurate, because Mystik play consistently faster. The title track of Hellbound would be a fair comparison though.

I enjoyed the heck out of this, even though there's far too much sibilance on the recording so I had to mess with my equalizer. That's a shame because I love von Krusenstjerna's delivery as much as her voice, because it really sounds like she's relishing every moment of this album, as cheesy as songs about Satan opening the gates to Hell or making sacrifices to the ancient majesty of Death get.

The band follow suit too and I wouldn't be surprised to find that this was recorded live. Some may complain about the production but it's clearly done deliberately. This sounds like one of those muddy eighties production jobs we all remember but it's also clearly done with modern equipment, so I have no doubt that the feel was a very important part of the recording.

However well it was designed to sound eighties, it's the songs that do that job better than anything. Into Oblivion starts things off as the band mean to go on. It's fast, it's powerful, it's catchy and it's cheesy as all get out. If we able to adapt to the latter, we're in for a treat because every track here plays out with those same credentials and not one of them fails on any level except for that cheese factor. I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite song. Like a couple of albums this year, it'll be whichever one I happen to be listening to when you ask.

The band look young so I wonder what they grew up listening to. This is as close to a time capsule to 1986 or 1987 as I've heard and there's nothing here to suggest that they didn't just climb out of a DeLorean and jump into a studio without stopping to look around at the future. This is all German heavy/speed metal from the mid eighties, which grew out of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest influences. The intro to Ancient Majesty, not to mention the solos within it, make that Maiden influence obvious but this is generally reminiscent more of German bands like Warlock and Iron Angel, with nothing newer than maybe the earliest Helloween.

While this couldn't be further up my alley if it was recorded intentionally as a birthday present, I have to point out that some will argue that Mystik play at a pretty consistent clip, meaning that songs get a little samey. I have to give them the pace argument but the vocals are high enough in the mix to dominate proceedings whenever von Krusenstjerna is singing and she's able to pluck different melodies out of the air, so I don't buy the samey argument too much. As she takes a back seat in each song, the guitars come out to take over that focus with style and the solos vary too.

Talking of solos, I hope that the band's sound won't change too much given the recent departure of Lo Wickman, one of the two guitarists (the other is Beatrice Karlsson). Rather than replace her, von Krusenstjerna switched up from bass to rhythm guitar, so we have a different dynamic there, on top of an empty slot for a bassist that's being filled with guests for live gigs. I don't know what was Wickman on this album and what was Karlsson, but I hope they'll be able to keep up sounds like the divebombing wasp that is one of the guitars on Hellish Force.

I thought about giving this a 7/10 rating, however much I enjoyed it, but I started writing down my highlight tracks and ended up with the first seven, which is more than anything I've reviewed in 2019 except the Banco album. I know I've heard better albums this year but I'm going to be playing this one to death because I'd be hard pressed to name one that I've enjoyed as much. And Mystik are now at the very top of my 'want to see live' list.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Saint Vitus - Saint Vitus (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 17 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Time does fly when we don't pay attention and this self titled Saint Vitus album comes no less than 35 years after the last one, their debut release from 1984. It's only their ninth studio album, following Lillie: F-65 from 2012 and the early seven from the eighties and nineties. Surprisingly, the line up isn't much different, as the band has never featured less than two founder members, which is what we have here.

Dave Chandler has been the guitarist all the way through. While there have been seven eras of vocalists, that only amounts to three different singers and the original, Scott Reagers, is back again for a third time. Mark Adams played bass through to 2016 but sadly had to retire because of Parkinson's; Patrick Bruders is his replacement. And there have only been two drummers over the years; Armando Acosta handed over to Henry Vasquez shortly before his death in 2010.

Now my tastes in doom have always fallen a lot more on the European side than the American, from Black Sabbath at the beginning through doom/death bands like Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride to classic era Candlemass and the Monasterium album that knocked my socks off earlier this month. Of the pioneering American bands, I'd lean far more towards Pentagram and Trouble than Saint Vitus or the Obsessed, but I know who they are and I've enjoyed some of their work.

Part of that is the punk influence that's overt here not just in the rapid fire punk song that closes the album but in the deliberate looseness of the rest of the track listing. This feels like Saint Vitus got themselves into the studio and played whatever they wanted without much care about whether, put together, it constituted something that made sense. And, frankly, even though I love variety in my metal albums, this feels disjointed.

Remains is a highly promising opener, an elephant of a track given acid and let out to run loose. Chandler's wild soloing only gets wilder as the album runs on, but it all starts here. It gets even more wild on Bloodshed, then more prominent on 12 Years in the Tomb as Vazquez slows down so that he can showcase his manipulation of feedback without interruption, before joining back in at a faster pace. Then Chandler returns for more of this in Wormhole and Hour Glass, like he's a zombie Jimi Hendrix reanimated to wail away on an old guitar in the middle of nowhere as a conjuration of elder gods.

While Chandler's gloriously insane soloing is consistent, the songs around him aren't. A Prelude to... is intriguing but it doesn't lead anywhere. It sounds very much like an intro, with subdued vocals from Reagars and a folky bass run from Bruders, but it doesn't feel like a prelude to Bloodshed, which is far more up tempo and vicious. 12 Years in the Tomb and Wormhole have that punk doom vibe too, like they're recording live in Chandler's back yard. I appreciated Bruders's contributions here, especially leading a Sabbath-like intro to Wormhole.

Things get stranger though. City Park is a set of ambient textures with an eerie narration and a very slow plodding bass. It's half horror soundtrack material and half stoner take on Tom Waits spoken word poetry like What's He Building? Given that the voice is often lost behind the wind and the lyrics aren't really why we listen to Saint Vitus albums, the effect is lost and I have to wonder why this track is here. It's as out of place as the blitz of Useless, which ought to be a cover version but not one I recognise.

It's good to see Saint Vitus back and this is worth it for the solos alone, but there are only really two, maybe three fully formed tracks worthy of a seven years in the making album: They're Remains and Bloodshed, with Last Breath as the maybe, given that it slows down gloriously but sounds rather like a doomy Glenn Danzig song. I've been positively surprised a lot this year but this one runs the other way. It should have been much more.

Famous Last Words - Arizona (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Post-Hardcore
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Twitter | Wikipedia

OK, I had to review this, given that the EP is called Arizona, even though Famous Last Words ironically appear to not be stopping here on the tour to support it. It's hardly my usual genre, though I've tagged it post-hardcore because it doesn't stay in any one style for long. Wikipedia adds metalcore and symphonic metal to that. I can hear Metal Archives laughing at the mere suggestion that this is metal, but Spirit of Metal list them as screamo.

I should add that they're not from Arizona, hailing instead from Petoskey, MI, which is a heck of a long way away. Why they went for Arizona as their EP title, I have no idea, unless it was to use sun drenched cover art that looks a lot more like Death Valley than anything in this state. There's no song called Arizona or anything like it. The titles follow the usual naming convention for screamo bands.

Runaways, which opens things up, is the quietest song on offer, much closer to the post-hardcore tag than anything else here. Where it comes into play elsewhere is because none of these songs fall into one category. One minute JT is screaming to the teenagers in the front row, the next he's singing in a clean pop voice and, before long, he'll add some effects to sound like a third singer. He isn't my thing but he does this very well. No wonder they have a Wikipedia page.

The band behind him is just as schizophrenic. A lot of the time they're in alternative rock mode, with a controlled beat and a steady bass while Evan Foley's guitar does whatever it's doing at any point in time. He has a lot of effects pedals, I think and, just as JT switches from style to style on the turn of a dime, Foley's guitar finds a different sound on every track. Tyler Myklebust, the band's former rhythm guitarist who's now on bass has all sorts of fun trying to stay with whatever tempo is in play at any point in time, which Cody Paige drives on the drums.

What surprised me most is that they don't play the verses at one speed and then ramp up to scream the chorus before backing down again. They speed up and slow down every time the wind changes direction. Whenever the beat has an idea to go frantic, everyone follows suit for another screamfest but it might last for a minute or just for mere seconds. It's unpredictable, which I appreciated.

This all sounds far too trendy for me (hey, I can't find an official website but every member of the band has his own Instagram page), which surely reflects as much on me as it does on Famous Last Words, but the band do seem very capable. I liked all the variety but don't have the background in these styles to point out comparisons. The only one that came up for me was an Emilie Autumn chorus in Scream, but frankly I'd be surprised if that's where they got the idea from. I'm sure the target audience will know what the band sound like (or don't).

What's most telling is that I still have no idea why this is called Arizona. And I still have no idea where that symphonic metal tag finds relevance.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Whitesnake - Flesh & Blood (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've learned a lot of lessons over my years as a critic but I learned some before I ever took up a virtual pen. Back in 1987, I read Kerrang! magazine from cover to cover and I still remember being shocked at the review of the then new Whitesnake album. It had nothing positive to say at all, giving it the minimum 1K out of 5 and bemoaning that it couldn't go lower. I learned there and then that critics should never make their reviews personal. I had no trust for that reviewer ever again.

That album, of course, was their self titled release, also known as 1987, a huge hit which is still easily the most successful Whitesnake album ever, a platinum seller in the UK and eight times that in the US. It reached #2 on the Billboard chart and became a mainstay on MTV. Sure, it was a commercial release in approach compared to the earlier bluesy albums but it was still an excellent album. The critic's job is not to argue with the direction of the band but to highlight what's objectively good or bad and provide a guide to readers as to whether they're likely to want to seek it out or not.

With that in mind, Flesh & Blood, only the fourth studio album since main man David Coverdale put his band back together again in 2002, is a strong release that fans will definitely want to pick up. On the slim possibility that you've never heard Whitesnake before, this is surprisingly as good a place as any to start. It's exactly what the rest of us would expect from them, a combination of hard rockers and emotional ballads, performed with a glam metal edge over a bluesy base, with Coverdale's ever-suggestive voice at the fore singing lyrics that are clearly about women, sex or both. It's good stuff but it's not surprising stuff.

I haven't heard those last few albums, not having checked in since Restless Heart, the sole product of the previous reformation in 1997, but it looks like they've been received pretty well. Good to Be Bad was the Album of the Year at the Classic Rock Awards; Forevermore seems like a celebration with former guitarists Adrian Vandenberg and Bernie Marsden both guesting on the subsequent tour; The Purple Album, as its title suggests, was reworkings of songs Coverdale co-wrote during his time in Deep Purple.

This, I believe, is all original material and, while the album does feel a little long at just shy of an hour (even without the bonus tracks), there's not a bad track to be found. Good to See You Again is a storming opener and Gonna Be Alright slows down, adds a layer of keyboards and lands a sultry and exotic vibe. Shut Up & Kiss Me, the opening single, is Whitesnake in a very traditional mode but with enough grounding to avoid comparisons to the now unfashionable glam metal era. That comes later with Well I Never, which is the least successful track at keeping the hairspray in the past.

The best track here is probably the one buried exactly at the heart of the album. It's called Trouble is Your Middle Name and it's the second single. The guitars are so playful that we wonder why they weren't this playful all along. It's followed by the title track, which is only the first of many of the second half songs to reach back to the blues. It kicks off with a neat riff and, while we know that Coverdale likes nothing better than some sexual innuendo (c'mon, what do you think Whitesnake means?), the way the guitars drive this song feel like sexual innuendo on their own. No words required.

While the most immediate songs probably all come in the first half, the most interesting ones wait for the second. Get Up features the most bluesy intro but really ramps up the speed to turn it into a fast-paced rocker. After All is the most overt ballad with a guitar approach reminiscent of someone like Jorma Kaukonen, who would feel natural covering this as an acoustic blues. And, after that change of pace, there's even an odd attempt at a Whitesnake Kashmir to wrap things up! Sands of Time is all middle eastern and epic and ambitious. No, it isn't Kashmir. Yes, it's interesting anyway.

This isn't the greatest Whitesnake album ever made, but it's a good one and an interesting one. It couldn't be mistaken for anyone else, but it's deep enough and modern enough in sound to avoid sounding like clichéd hair metal. Coverdale is 67 years old but he sounds as confident and capable as ever, so I can see the Snake writhing on forward for some years to come.

Magnolia Moon - Magnolia Moon (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Southern Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 11 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website

It seems that Magnolia Moon have been building quite the name for themselves in their home town of Macon, GA, where they're sponsored by two, count 'em, two breweries. How frickin' cool is that? They're a band of brothers, quite literally, with two Horton brothers, two Crowell brothers and Dwayne Boswell wrapping up the line up on keyboards, and these guys really rock.

I've tagged this as southern rock, so you're probably conjuring up a Lynyrd Skynyrd clone in your mind, but that's really not what these guys do. Sure, there's, inevitably, some Skynyrd in here, especially in the vocals of Zack Horton, but I'd suggest the Allman Brothers as a more overt influence, as I doubt anyone could miss from the two minute intro.

They play longer songs, not one of the six tracks proper here clocking in at under five and a half minutes. Mostly this is because, as sweet and pure as Horton's voice is, they're a jam band and they need space in between all the verses and choruses to explore how best to weave their instruments together to create something special. I should add that he's a major part of that too as one of the band's two guitarists.

I don't know how long they've been playing together, but they're very tight indeed and I could believe they all grew up with instruments in their hands preparing for this debut album. Everyone shines here but, even when they're in the spotlight, they shine as part of a band rather than as an overt star in its midst.

Surely they grew up listening to the classic rock legends of the seventies, because that's what shines through here. They cite the first three albums from Led Zeppelin and the first three from Black Sabbath as key influences, and there's certainly some of each here. The midsection of Daylight sees Horton add a lot of Robert Plant into his Ronnie van Zant and the rest of the band make similar adjustments.

It's actually hard to call out the rest for a couple of reasons. One is that Magnolia Moon never quite sound like anyone else, except for that intro, but incorporate a lot of other bands into their own sound. The other is that it is insanely easy to get lost in this music. I was taking notes on the Stevie Ray Vaughn nods in The High and the funk in Gypsy Woman and all of a sudden, the band were wrapping up Daylight and I realised that I'd spent the three intervening tracks in thrall, being carried along by these waves of sound.

Daylight is certainly the deepest track here, but it also has longer to play with, running almost eight and a half minutes. It's fair to say, however, that all these tracks feel deep. While there's nothing impenetrable here, I couldn't pick out a single. That's just not what Magnolia Moon do. They're not going to suddenly turn into the Georgia Satellites or the Black Crowes for the sake of commerciality, though they trawl some of the same territory and River Queen has strong hints of the latter. They're an album band.

And, of course, I'm sure they're a band who thrive most on the stage, where these five or six minute songs could become ten or fifteen minute jams. The five and a half minutes of Nothing Left honestly felt like fifteen but in a good way. It didn't drag, it just drew me in so far that I completely lost track of time. And that stood true on a second and a third listen, which is a heck of a subconscious compliment really. The same goes for Underwater in its final sections, because the band just rips.

I think this unashamed leap back into the seventies is fantastic stuff and Magnolia Moon are going to grow into a real force to be reckoned with. The big question is how underground they're going to remain, because this isn't the sort of thing that the radio is going to pick up on. I hope they break it somehow without turning commercial because they deserve to be heard.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso - Transiberiana (2019)

Country: Italy
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

As I write, the last review I posted was for the new album from death metal pioneers Possessed, released no less than 33 years after its predecessor. It isn't the first surprising return in 2019, as Rosy Vista, formed as far back as 1983, finally issued their debut album, and Rock Goddess released a new album 32 years after their previous one. Suddenly Alan Parsons releasing a new album a mere 15 years after its predecessor seems unremarkable.

The surprises do keep coming though, especially in the world of prog rock, with other recent new albums from Focus, Gong and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso. There are a few reasons why this last is particularly surprising, only the first being that this counts as the first studio album for these Italian prog rockers since Il 13 in 1994.

Another is that four of the six current members are actually younger than the band itself, who were formed back in 1969 and helped pioneer the scene known as RPI, or "rock progressivo Italiano", with their first three albums, released in 1972 and 1973. At that point, Filippo Marcheggiani wasn't even born and Nicola di Già, Tony D'Alessio and Marco Capozi were far too busy learning how to walk and talk to explore the joys of prog rock.

A third reason is that Banco's memorable lead singer, Francesco di Giacomo, died in a car accident in 2014, and his replacement, after over forty years in the band, isn't necessarily who we might expect. He's Tony D'Alessio, a runner-up in the X Factor Italia talent show with a pop/rap band called Ape Escape. Then again, he's also sung for a power metal band, Lost Innocence, and a prog metal band called Scenario. And hey, with Queen + Adam Lambert becoming something of an institution, the stigma of appearing on TV talent shows has evaporated.

The final reason is that this album is pretty frickin' fantastic. Prog fans generally rave about those first three Banco albums and appreciate the rest of their output in the seventies but despise everything they've done since, especially their eighties albums, which were far more mainstream pop. This album, however, is being received very well, with ratings almost up at the level of those first three albums. The choice of cover, a globe shaped like the money box on their debut album, is telling. This is old school Banco.

Certainly, it feels like a classic prog rock album from the very beginning. The opening track, Stelle sulla terra, sets the stage with a notable range of sounds. It kicks off with soft keyboards from Vittorio Nocenzi, the only founding member left in the band, gets raucous with drums, then quiet again with piano, allowing the operatic lead vocal to take the spotlight. Halfway through, that vocal changes completely, to a staccato delivery over a sort of jangling bouzouki and an electronic pulse. The second half sees guitars join the fray, duelling with the drums before finding a groove.

This is the opposite of that Alan Parsons album, which was so safe that it could hardly be called progressive. L'imprevisto is just as progressive but it's catchier, with an opening riff that sounds rather like an imaginative Survivor, a swirling progression and a very cool chorus that's stuck in my head even though I don't speak more than a few words of Italian and have no idea what D'Alessio is singing about.

La discesa dal treno initially seems lesser in comparison, but it gets much more interesting as it runs on, with a glorious section three minutes in of jazzy piano over a strong beat, before moving through Italian lounge to the heavier but teasing finalé that points the way to L'assalto dei lupi. Did I hear a vibrophone in there? There's surely a xylophone under a roaming bass in L'assalto dei lupi, which I presume details an attack by wolves. There's a lot of playful experimentation going on here, some of which aims to sound like a growl. What 'sukiyaki' means in Italian, though, I have no idea.

The tracks continue to impress, both by their individual quality and their cumulative variety, and it becomes very difficult to pick highlights. What makes that task harder is that those songs, such as La discesa dal treno or Lo sciamano, that hint towards being less impressive turn out to merely be doing something we don't initially grasp and they get stronger on a second listen, often much stronger. Even when they don't stand out for attention, like Campi di fragole, they still play their part in the bigger picture of the album as a whole.

A final surprise, perhaps a telling one, is that this is long for a Banco album, running 53 minutes even without the two live bonus tracks, including an excellent rendition of Metamorphosi from the Banco debut that runs well over nine minutes on its own. However, that old song excepted, there aren't any lengthy tracks here at all, five exceeding six minutes but none by much. This new Banco is a different Banco, even if it's looking backwards to the early days for its chief influence.

After a first listen, I'd have suggested that this is little heavier than those old albums, but further listens scotch that. I think this merely has the benefit of modern production values and so its heavier sections feel a bit heavier. However, much of this album, in keeping with the RPI mindset, are much softer, often delicate. Nocenzi, at many points, sounds like he's playing icicles that might break under his touch.

This is easily the best prog rock album I've heard so far this year and it has to be the most progressive such too, as admirably varied as the recent Jon Anderson album but more consistent in quality and more experimental. I leave this highly surprised that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso knocked out a new studio album in 2019 but just as happy. Maybe it's a little longer than it should have been but I'm not complaining and I couldn't pick any song as an obvious candidate for exclusion.

Now, 2019, keep those surprises coming!