Friday, 13 September 2019

The Hu - The Gereg (2019)

Country: Mongolia
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 13 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Well, I've been waiting for this one for a long time! I've mentioned before that my immediate wish for folk metal, when it became a thing, was for it to traverse the globe and trawl in all sorts of farflung cultures. I couldn't be happier that that's exactly what it's done. It reached Mongolia before the Hu and I adored watching Tengger Cavalry live in Mesa a few years ago. I hope to catch the Hu in Phoenix in early October. They've achieved something even trickier than making a good album though; they went viral on YouTube. I saw a lot of friends, varied and not all music fans, sharing the Hu's videos.

While this is still folk metal, it's a lot more tribal and a lot less metal than Tengger Cavalry or others I've found, like Nine Treasures and Hanggai. The band call what they do "Hunnu Rock", because they take inspiration from the Hunnu or Xiongnu, a powerful empire of nomads who ruled Central Asia a couple of thousand years ago. This is often very militaristic, one of those viral hits, Wolf Totem, constructed from warlike chants. It's so vehemently antagonistic that it could almost be a Maori haka. Even if you haven't seen the video, your imagination will create one very like it from the music.

Of course, anyone stumbling on Mongolian metal will hear a lot of new sounds that they haven't heard before, most obviously the throat singing technique, which I've adored ever since I first heard Huun-Huur Tu a couple of decades ago. Throat singers are able to create two very distinct notes at the same time, usually a really low drone and a high melodic trill.

Also, with the exception of the drums, the instruments are wildly different from what we're used to. Enkush and Gala play the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle, usually played upright like a smaller cello. Jaya plays a jaw harp and flutes like the tsuur. Temka plays the tovshuur, a two stringed guitar. The result is something much more exotic than Celtic or Finnish folk metal, even the Andean stuff I'm enjoying so much of late.

What the Hu do differently from Tengger Cavalry and the others is let their traditional instrumentation drive everything so that this is less folk metal and more folk music that's just darker and heavier than would usually be the case. I could easily imagine Korpiklaani performing around a campfire in a forest, but they'd have amps to plug into and a full drumkit. The Hu don't seem to need that. They could simply walk up to that fire, perform and then climb on their horses and ride off to find another fire.

Some songs are more vicious. The morin khuur on The Same gets far closer to metal guitar soloing. The beat on Yuve Yuve Yu and the title track are given by western drums. There's a lot of metal in the intensity of The Great Chinggis Khaan. However, the majority of songs here are world music rather than any intensity of rock music, only some of which manage to walk in both worlds. The Legend of Mother Swan, for instance, is delicate but it carries a powerful intent behind it, courtesy of those tribal chants and drums. It is beautiful music. I fell into Song of Women, the seven minute closer and enjoyed it for what seemed like hours.

Fortunately, I'm a big fan of world music, whether rocked up or not, and I know that I'll be listening to this a lot because it fits perfectly in both worlds. The moods it invokes are powerful and I'm talking the grooves that the songs find, not just the evocative intros like the flute that kicks off Shoog Shoog. And I wonder if that will help or hinder the Hu. Viral culture is a finicky creature. They aren't going to get thirty million views for each video. They're going to fade away somewhat. However, they deserve to remain known because they're astoundingly good and should be listened to for their quality as much as for their exotic nature to mainstream audiences.

Magic Pie - Fragments of the 5th Element (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | YouTube

I always thought that Jeremiah was a bullfrog, but apparently's he's a wino who lived from day to day (sadly past tense) and the opening track, The Man Who Had It All, is all about him. If that makes you conjure up a Jethro Tull sort of song, then you wouldn't be far wrong, especially as the phrasing of whichever vocalist is singing this one (and Magic Pie have a pair of them, Eiríkur Hauksson and Eirik Hanssen) is reminiscent of Ian Anderson. However, there isn't a flute anywhere to be found and there's a particularly lively keyboard presence to the song, courtesy of Erling Henanger, that reminds, at different points, of Marillion, IQ and other bands from the second wave of British prog rock in the eighties.

No, before you ask, not everyone in Magic Pie has the initials EH and P & C is a great moment to highlight the guitars, which does mean Eiríkur Hauksson again but also Kim Stenberg. While there was prog metal to be found in the opener, here's where they really start to remind of Dream Theater and Spock's Beard and other more modern bands. However, that's much more because of the guitar tone and production; in structure, they're still very seventies. The vocal approach on this one reminds of Ian Gillan era Deep Purple, at least once it gets past the lower register Yes intro, and the instrumental midsection is more like Frank Zappa.

As if building a repertoire of influences for the final track to explore all at once, Table for Two initially sounds like David Bowie. Again, this sound is driven by the vocals, but the music steps back a little to emphasise that on this track. Later the style evolves to become more of a gentle Wishbone Ash sound, but that David Bowie influence returns with emphasis for Touched by an Angel, which isn't a prog rock song with Bowie vocals; it sounds just like a Bowie song.

The Hedonist is the side-long finisher and it's suitably epic. It kicks off lively with plenty of energetic soloing on both guitar and keyboards. Vocals don't show up for three minutes but, when they do, they shift pretty easily between the styles already mentioned, so much so that the vocalist can shift from Gillan to Ian Anderson to Bowie in a single verse. This song is nigh on 23 minutes long but never feels like it's too much. Perhaps that's because it's able to evolve and breathe and grow.

And, because The Hedonist is so long, that's it. Five tracks last over three quarters of an hour, so this is a decent slab of music. I read that it's the fifth album for Magic Pie, who were founded in Moss, Norway by Kim Stenberg back in 2001. They've been on a four year release schedule ever since 2007's Circle of Life, so this is right on time for their fans.

I've listened to (and reviewed) a few Norwegian prog rock albums this year, enough to tell me that there's a scene up there that's definitely worth your attention. Motorpsycho and Mythopoeic Mind are good bands and I can happily now add Magic Pie to that alliterative mix, although the three are different in overt ways. Magic Pie aren't as heavy or as experimental as Motorpsycho and they're not as folky as Mythopoeic Mind, but they're more lively than either of them.

I mentioned in my review of the latter's Mythopoetry that it often felt like it was grown rather than recorded. This isn't as organic but it's often very liquid as if it flowed into form. I wonder if this tie to nature is a common factor in Norwegian prog rock but, sadly, I'm not up to being able to catch the local influences yet. Maybe in time. I'm going to happily keep exploring the scene.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Sonata Arctica - Talviyö (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 5/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I remember Sonata Arctica from the early 2000s, but I've never delved into them particularly deeply and I'm surely blurring them in my mind with their fellow Finns, Stratovarius. All I know about them since then is that fans have disagreed on the musical direction that they've taken over their last couple of albums. Some are all for the expansion in scope, while others are questioning their move away from power metal to more melodic rock. I don't have a dog in this fight, so I was intrigued to see if Talviyö, their tenth studio album, would work for me.

And, mostly it doesn't, to the degree that I thought about not reviewing it. I see my job here at Apocalypse Later as to enable discovery and that's just not going to happen if I tear things apart, so I'm reviewing the good stuff and passing on the bad. Every once in a while, though, someone important has something new out and a review can serve as a warning. And that's where I am right now.

This isn't awful, though the ballads do get there, but it does so little of substance that it's an album for the more dedicated fans. It's certainly not as bad as the Papa Roach album, which I'd also seen as intriguing but which underwhelmed me. However, it's at the level of The Three Tremors album and the latest Saint Vitus, which were generally disappointments with some odd moments of interest. Here, that comes mostly through an instrumental, Ismo's Got Good Reactors, which is a bouncy, rich and enticing piece of music.

Otherwise, it's in moments rather than songs. There are some inventive prog elements to both Whirlwind and Storm the Armada and there are a lot of wild and interesting things going on in Demon's Gate: it has a clever intro and gets impressively dark with the riff that shows up a couple of minutes in. But those are moments.

Some songs are decent but hardly what we might expect. The two singles that preceded the album, A Little Less Understanding and Cold really aren't power metal in the slightest, the former especially a pretty straightforward pop rock song and the latter a little heavier but still far from power metal. I quite liked A Little Less Understanding but Cold left me dry.

Others are certainly listenable but won't stay in mind as far as the end of the album, let alone a month later. Message from the Sun may be a little bit better than that but Storm the Armada and Who Failed the Most aren't. I can happily enjoy them while they're on but then they're gone and I'll forget I ever heard them.

And then there are the ballads. The Raven Still Flies with You is sugary in tone but it occasionally finds some of the epic feel we expect from a power metal band. However, the cool instrumental prog section midway through and a folky section to wrap up only serves to emphasise how lightweight the rest of it is. At least it's leagues ahead of The Last of the Lambs, which is an insipid and tedious waste of four minutes. In turn, that's leagues ahead of The Garden, which is an interminable way to wrap up an album.

It's not good when the only worthy track is the sole instrumental, there are at least two annoyingly bad ones and everything else is forgettable. This is definitely one only for the diehards. Regular readers will know that there's a lot of great music coming out of Finland. I hope that Sonata Arctica find their way back into that category.

Detroit Hills - Discovery (2019)

Country: Belarus
Style: Post-Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 18 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

You might look at the cover of this album and make a relatively safe guess at what lies within. If you had no other information to go on, you'd likely be wrong. This is a post-rock album, a short one too at a few minutes shy of half an hour, but it's not from the urban sprawl of south eastern Michigan; it's from a city called Navapolatsk or Navapolotsk, depending on where you see it written, in Belarus. The musicians aren't white suburbanites, they're White Russians. And I'm guessing they're not anthropomorphic animals, as the cover suggests.

I'm not seeing any breakdown of band members, but I do see a suggestion that they used to be a four piece band that wasentirely instrumental. That's not the case any more, as there are vocals on every track here. I don't know if one of those four members stepped up to the mike or if they hired a singer but the songs are driven by the vocals and don't feel like they would work anywhere near as well without them, at least not early on.

They're deceptively light, because this is bright and cheerful melodic music but with depth if you're willing to dip below the surface. Memories, as an example, feels like a Joy Division song as covered by U2, as if a thoughtful and introspective piece was rendered cheerful with bounce and jangles. State of Mind has a relatively standard alternative rock vocal but the music feels ethnic, as if there were reggae musicians adding their flavour.

It also gets heavier, which is an interesting sound for music this vibrant, and The Rustle of Morning Stars follows suit. This isn't metal by any means, but there's a density to the sound that goes beyond anything U2 have done to become almost a soundscape. It's these songs that bring back that thought of instrumental music. Without vocals, these two would be even more immersive than they are already. It would be easy to get lost in them. Certainly, this album runs short but feels shorter because we get caught up in it and lose track of time.

The closest we get to an instrumental is Into the Light, because the regular song ends three and a half minutes in, consistent with the other five tracks on offer, but it carries on in a different vein and it's fascinating. There have been progressive elements throughout, especially on Open, but this adds ambient and glitch electronica to the mix, which was surprising given what's before it, but it's welcome even if I'm not sure how well four minutes of it at the very end of the album affects its balance.

I like this music. It's a palate cleanser and I found running through it on repeat a very pleasant experience. I felt better (and I wasn't feeling bad) but I also found myself finding odd little touches in this song or that that I'd missed on a first time through. I can see coming back to this reasonably often, especially The Rustle of Morning Stars, which gets better every time I hear it. The way the vocals layer is a joy.

And, on a wider level, so is this album. I just wish there was more of it as it's over far too quickly. I see two previous releases, but they're short. Memory, released back in 2016, looks like a single with only two songs plus a forty-four second interlude between them. Delight, from 2015, on the other hand, is a full album and one that, with ten songs, is longer than this. I definitely need to track them both down.

And that just leaves one question. Why would a band from Navapolatsk decide to call themselves Detroit Hills? Inquiring minds want to know.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Black Star Riders - Another State of Grace (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm late to the table for Black Star Riders, as this is their fourth studio album. For those others who are coming in fresh, they're a sort of spinoff from latter day Thin Lizzy but they're more interesting that that suggests. Thin Lizzy has been reformed many times by past members but, by all reports, none of them felt that it would be appropriate to record new material under that name. When a solid line-up seemed to be likely to do that, they chose a new name that had no connections to Thin Lizzy. That's Black Star Riders.

The line up has stayed reasonably consistent and is stellar. The remaining founder members are guitarist Scott Gorham, who had been with the original Thin Lizzy for a decade, playing on most of their most famous tracks, and Ricky Warwick, formerly of the Almighty. Damon Johnson, guitarist for Alice Cooper and the highly underrated Brother Cane, left in 2018 to be replaced by Christian Martucci of Stone Sour. Bassist Marco Mendoza, currently with the Dead Daisies, left in 2014 with Robbie Crane of Ratt taking over. Jimmy DeGrasso, of Y&T and Megadeth, among others, was the original drummer but he handed over to Chad Szeliga of Breaking Benjamin and Black Label Society in 2017. That's a lot of big names.

The standout here is the title track. If the opener, Tonight the Moonlight Let Me Down, didn't tell you in no uncertain terms that this is Thin Lizzy under another name, Another State of Grace makes it utterly impossible to think otherwise. It's the best Thin Lizzy song I've heard since Thin Lizzy were recording new material. It has an Irish folk melody to build it and it has to be said that Ricky Warwick often sounds uncannily like Phil Lynott. It can't hurt that he's actually from Northern Ireland, having been born in County Down, while everyone's favourite Irish bass player, Lynott, only grew up there, as he was born in West Bromwich in the English midlands.

Frankly, this song demonstrates how good it is to hear what sounds like Thin Lizzy with modern production values. However good the material on them, the old Lizzy albums often suffered from fair, if not outright bad, production. It helped me to be with the Black Star Riders for much of what would be the first side. Tonight the Moonlight Let Me Down and Soldier in the Ghetto are decent Lizzy-style songs and Ain't the End of the World is better. Candidate for Heartbreak, which closes out the album is solid too.

In between, I found myself fighting with the songs. Underneath the Afterglow is decent enough but it's a lot less Thin Lizzy and a lot more grunge, with some sections highly reminiscent of Nirvana. The ballad Why Do You Love Your Guns? takes its time to engage; it gets there eventually but it's only half a good song. Otherwise it's parts of songs that impress: the female backing vocals on What Will It Take?, the riffs on In the Shadow of the War Machine and the call and return vocals on Poisoned Heart.

These aren't bad tracks. They're just not up to the title track, which is a brilliant piece of music. An album of songs like that one would be an easy 9/10 for me, but, as it is, it starts out as an 8/10, drifts down to a 6/10 and I find myself arguing with myself over whether Candidate for Heartbreak lifts it back up to a 7/10. It's a good album. It's not a great one, though it has hints that it could be. I ended up tossing a coin, because 6.5/10 isn't an option and so 6/10 it is. Sorry guys.

Anifernyen - Augur (2019)

Country: Portugal
Style: Melodic Black/Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 9 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Finally, I find a Portuguese band who don't play instrumental psychedelic rock! I should add that I've really dug those varied instrumental psychedelic rock albums. There's something in the water down in Portugal that makes that stuff work really well and I'm sure I'll be reviewing a lot more of it in the future. But for the first time this year, here's something else!

Anifernyen play melodic death metal but in a heavily black metal influenced style. Or hey, maybe they play melodic black metal with a death influence. I have to say that they balance these two disparate styles so well that it's hard to tell what the band's initial focus was. Even the name fails to tell that, as it would fit either genre. It's an ancient Breton way of describing Hell: "an ifern yen" translating to "a cold hell".

Surprisingly, given that this is their debut album, they were formed as long ago as 2003. It looks like they stayed together until 2010, issuing one EP, The Pledge of Chaos, in 2008. They reformed in 2016, with a new bass player and drummer. Ricardo Vieira also handles bass duties for thrash band Buried Alive. Hugo Almeida is clearly in demand, as he sits behind the kit for five active bands, including notably Inthyflesh, and he has another six under his belt from prior years, including, again, Buried Alive.

Almeida makes his presence massively obvious here, because the drums are a black metal blitzkrieg. They're tight and they're high in the mix. What's more, even if he plays slowly, relatively speaking, he continues to do very interesting things with his rhythms and fills. There's a lot of cymbal work going on too. He's very impressive and the rest of the group have to work hard to keep up with him.

Other than Almeida, most obvious here is Daniel Lucas, the lead vocalist. He displays a versatility with his voice that's needed for an album that works across two different genres. Frankly, if he hadn't been up to the challenge, this album would not be as successful as it is. He has a warm and enunciated death growl but he's able to shift it into a bleaker register when he wants to emphasise the black aspects. He doesn't shriek particularly, but he gets a lot harsher. I liked his whispering approach on Christendoom too.

As tends to be the case nowadays, we have to listen very closely to hear the bass, which contributes more as a layer than a separate instrument. It does make it through everything else at points, especially on Foreshadowing, and also on Christendoom, but it never makes it to the front of our attention.

There are two guitarists, Luis Ferreira and Diogo Malheiro, and they often fall into the mix too. The riffs are deep and dark and the solos a lot less frequent than I expected. Even the melodies are surprisingly subsumed by the backing though, when they really come out to play, they're solid. There are strong moments soloing on Graveborn, building Voleur D'âmes and contributing in a number of ways to standout tracks like Foreshadowing, Christendoom and Wormwood.

As if to show their disdain for genre boundaries, Anifernyen step away from the black/death style at moments. Emissary gets a little thrashy for a while and Foreshadowing starts out (and returns to) being very doomy. A number of tracks on the second half have a doom/death feel to them, regardless of pace. That really works for me. Oh, and if anyone doubted a Celtic Frost influence, the death grunt on Deadite ought to settle that.

And this album really works for me. I wasn't impressed on a first listen but a second sold it on me and it's got better and more immersive each further time through. It's good stuff indeed and it proves that there's more than a single musical style in play in Portugal nowadays.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Tarja - In the Raw (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 30 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I was intrigued to listen to this new album from Tarja, the solo band of the former lead singer of Nightwish, Tarja Turunen, because I don't believe I've heard her solo work before, even though this is the eighth studio album from Tarja since 2006. It sounds rather different to what I remember of her from Nightwish, though not in any incompatible way.

Dead Promises begins not only with tasty guitarwork but also surprising drum programming. It's a decent song, but Tarja doesn't stretch her pipes too far on it, not least because she's sharing the mike with Soilwork's Björn Strid. Her voice is still pure, clean and powerful, but it's mostly content to play a lot lighter than I remember from those early Nightwish albums.

It takes four tracks for her voice to demonstrate its operatic range. That's Railroads, which is very light and playful until its operatic chorus. Tarja is clearly happy to wander all over the musical map rather than remain in a single style, even if she happens to be one of the most important innovators in that style. I appreciate that.

The heaviest the album gets is the midsection of Tears in Rain, which builds with that vocal harmony escalation that everyone who's ever sung Twist and Shout knows really well, but turns into a heavy workout for the musicians in the band, which mostly translates to Alex Scholpp. Just on Tears in Rain, he provides the guitar, bass, keyboards and additional vocals.

I'm not sure if the lightest the album gets is The Golden Chamber or You and I, which are coincidentally the middle two tracks. You and I is a ballad with little except Tarja accompanying herself on piano. It's theatrical and would fit somewhere in a Disney animated feature if only Disney had balls. I think The Golden Chamber is mostly Tarja solo too, but it's more like Enya, a combination of swirling keyboards, tinkling piano and a vocal that doesn't often involve words but creates a great atmosphere regardless.

Everything else fits somewhere in between, whether it's a rock song, a metal song, a pop song, a show song or whatever Tarja feels like singing. A couple of other names guest on one song each: Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil, who lends a hand on Goodbye Stranger, and Tommy Karevik of Kamelot, who helps on Silent Masquerade. Both are solid tracks in the more traditional symphonic metal vein. The latter is one of the album's highlights, instrumentally and vocally both, coming from Nightwish via Queensrÿche.

I liked this album, though I don't buy much into the theme. Perhaps there's some "raw, personal places in her lyrics" but, even with the orchestration dialled down, this is still immaculately crafted and produced material. I'd be able to conjure up a lot of different adjectives to describe it but "raw" is never going to be one of them.

Clearly I need to listen to more solo Tarja. I have massive respect for what she and her bandmates accomplished in Nightwish but somehow lost track after that. She's obviously keeping herself busy and she's created a strong album here. Sure, two of her eight studio albums are Christmas records and I'll be avoiding the most recent of those on principle, but I should clearly take a look at the others. The one previous to this is The Shadow Self, from 2016, and it features a Muse cover of all things. I'm still intrigued.