Monday 3 June 2024

Evildead - Toxic Grace (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 4/10
Release Date: 24 May 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I liked United States of Anarchy, Evildead's comeback album in 2020, and actively talked up certain aspects that I'll quote right now: "it's full of unashamedly old school fast and heavy thrash" and "a great mix of technical proficiency, angry attitude and raw speed, just how I like it". The reason I'm bringing that up now is because I can't remotely say the same things about this follow-up, a fourth album overall for the Los Angeles thrashers, and that's highly disappointing.

It takes a little while to realise how disappointing but, the longer the album runs on, the more we can't avoid the conclusion that Evildead have seriously lost their way this time out. I hope they can correct course for their next album, because it shouldn't be a particularly difficult task. They were in fine fettle four years ago. What's changed since then?

Initially, it's not too bad. F.A.F.O. kicks off well, with a capable intro suggesting an imminent ramp up to fast thrash speeds but it never quite gets there. It keeps hinting that it will for quite a while, but we gradually realise that it's content to just chug along while Phil Flores tries to sound angry without the same level of effort he put into the previous album. Reverie starts out fast but calms down and Flores shifts into an almost hip hop vocal approach. He's not rapping per se, but he spits bars here, punctuating their last words, as often as he spits out lyrics.

Neither of these are bad tracks, but neither is what it could be, so we're still hopeful at this point and I remained hopeful even after a chugger like Raising Fresh Hell that's nothing but filler three tracks in with a poor chorus. There's some speed in Stupid on Parade, but only very briefly, even if drummer Rob Alaniz doesn't quite get the memo, and its brevity sparks a sinking feeling that only grows with the album, pausing only temporarily in Subjugated Souls during the first of the album's two real examples of excellent fast thrash that hurls out energy. The second arrives at the end of Fear Porn nine tracks in, with only a cover still to come at that point.

I talk a lot about songs on albums that I merely like on a first listen but appreciate more and more each further time through. These growers tend to sound good but carry depth that comes clearer in repeat listens and often those become my favourite songs on those albums. I have to say Stupid on Parade is the antithesis of that. I didn't like it on a first listen, with its chugging tedium and its manipulated vocals, but repeat listens make me realise just how bad it is. That's not a good thing. Neither is not wanting to listen to it again after three times through.

And so it goes. Subjugated Souls may be the best song on the album, musically speaking, but it's a rather awkward song lyrically. Now, Evildead have never been the best lyricists and even the prior album was hardly impressive from that standpoint, its songs hurling vitriol at all the usual thrash suspects like politics and religion. I can get past that for the most part, but this one feels like it's punching down instead of up, a product of old men bitching about a younger generation. That it's got some fair points to make and it's better lyrically crafted than the previous few songs doesn't make it feel any less cringeworthy.

So there's a delicate and tasty intro to Bathe in Fire? We know that Juan Garcia is a killer guitarist even if he doesn't try particularly hard this time out. The guitar solo on this song is easily its best aspect, because it's another mid-tempo chugger with an even more lazy Flores vocal delivery. He speaks some of these lyrics, chants others and adds more post-production manipulation. This was the point where the sinking feeling stuck. World ov Rats hints at energy with its opening riff and bassline. Fear Porn has that second blistering section that feels great until we realise how little the album has left to go. Poetic Omen does nothing. None of them are highlights, though.

In fact, there are no real highlights. I'd plump for Subjugated Souls musically, but the lyrics don't help its case. That probably leaves F.A.F.O. as the best original song, which it really shouldn't be, and the best song the cover that wraps things up. It's The Death & Resurrection Show, taken from Killing Joke's self-titled 2003 album, and I rather dig it, but it doesn't feel like it belongs anywhere on this album. Evildead covered Planet Claire by the B-52s on United States of Anarchy, so maybe they ought to release an unusual covers album. I'd be up for that.

How things change over such a brief period. Four years ago, I was glad to see Evildead back and I praised their vitriol and vitality. They felt rejuvenated and ready to play a part in the burgeoning thrash scene. Today, I'm finding the best of their new material average and the worst thoroughly disappointing, and thinking about them as a covers band. That's not a good career trajectory.

Sykofant - Sykofant (2024)

Country: Norway
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 May 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Prog Archives | Tiktok | YouTube

I don't review every album I'm sent as a submission, but I do review most because they tend to be very strong indeed and this prog rock album from Norway is no exception. Now, I was sold on prog rock album from Norway, because, if there's a country outdoing Poland in that genre right now, it has to be Norway. However, this is very different from any of the other bands I'm being shocked by, like Motorpsycho, Wobbler and Shamblemaths, partly because it combines a couple of eras that I don't usually hear merged.

One isn't too surprising, because it's early Pink Floyd, not the famous stuff but the stuff that came right before it. There's a Floydian patience to the first four minutes of Between Air and Water and both the vocal melodies and the first guitar solo flow like Floyd too. When it returns to this sound in the second half, the bass gets ominous in a simple but highly effective manner that reminds of the Floyd's Empty Spaces. This is very tasty indeed, so I was far from unhappy when a very similar bassline shows up at the very end of the album, to wrap up Forgotten Paths.

However, the other is highly surprising because it's far more recent, namely the nineties, but in a couple of different ways. One is a jagged prog metal approach that reminds very much of Voivod, as is obvious in the third section of Between Air and Water. The other, however, is the commercial sort of American alternative rock that I wasn't expecting to hear on a Norwegian prog album. It's all over the melodies on the opener, Pavement of Colors, and, for a prog album that's as sonically complex as we might expect, that and other songs often find a grungy level of lo-fi simplicity that was fascinating to me. Points in Between the Moments reminded me of Clutch.

It's not merely those two eras, because Strangers in particular ventures all over the musical map, but they're the two that kept coming back for me. Pavement of Colors develops from a funky start with a wonderful bassline, through jangly guitars to almost a Tank guitar tone as it wraps up. That would constitute a highly versatile song except Between Air and Water has three times as long to explore three very different approaches, and Strangers, at just over ten minutes, has everything beaten hands down on that front. This is prog rock, after all, and a prog rock album isn't supposed to stay in the same place.

There are other surprising shifts in style that caught my attention. The first half of Monuments of Old finds a Rush vibe for a while, which makes sense, but it evolves into something far more Black Sabbath, which is far more surprising, and that evolves into almost a jazzy take on Megadeth, not a phrase I ever expected to use in a review. Strangers, always the song to outdo everything else, is happy to follow a section full of middle eastern flavour with one out of a spaghetti western. Then, just to put the icing on the cake, it goes almost ambient in its second half.

In short, there's a lot here because Norwegian prog rock bands never rest on their laurels. While this is a debut album, it's a generous one at only a few minutes shy of an hour, and its six tracks do a huge amount. I've listened through half a dozen times now, which is enough to firm up personal favourites. Between Air and Water was an immediate favourite, but Strangers beats it every time through. It's a fascinating song, my favourite sections sounding like Voivod covering Led Zeppelin with a couple of vocalists. The ambient section that kicks off almost eight minutes in really ought to spoil the song but it works as a sort of interlude to calm us before Forgotten Paths takes things home.

Everyone does their job, as tends to be pretty essential for ambitious prog rock albums, but I keep coming back to Sindre Haugen's bass. It's not always there and it's not always doing things of note but it's there often enough and doing things of note often enough to stand out for me. There are two guitarists, Emil Moen and Per Semb, and I don't know how they divvy up lead and rhythm, but the solos are often excellent. I particularly like the one a few minutes into Forgotten Paths, while it's almost a pop song, and the longer one during the second half, when it's become something far more versatile.

They're also as frequently responsible for the jazzier sections as the drums of Melvin Treider, who is notable for just how much he does without ever seeming to steal any sort of spotlight. They also dip into other genres, from the jagged prog metal of Between Air and Water to a blues slide and jaunty near reggae late midway through Forgotten Paths. And that leaves the vocals, which come courtesy of Moen on lead but Semb and Haugen prominently backing him up. There are points on songs like Pavement of Colors that need two voices to unfold properly.

I haven't heard an average Norwegian prog rock album yet, which is telling. This doesn't reach the heights of Shamblemaths or my favourite Motorpsycho album, Kingdom of Oblivion, but it's above the very high bar the country is setting, up there with strong albums from established bands like Leprous and Mythopoeic Mind. Thanks, Sykofant, I hope Norway keeps those wonderful prog rock albums coming!

Friday 10 May 2024

Lee Aaron - Tattoo Me (2024)

Country: Canada
Style: Pop/Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 26 Apr 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I'm always fascinated by the latest Lee Aaron release, because she has no intention of staying in a single musical genre. Back in the mid eighties when I first heard her, she was singing heavy metal, but softened up into hard rock later in the decade. She's moved through pop, blues, jazz and even swing, shifting back to rock with 2016's Fire and Gasoline. I noticed in 2021, giving Radio On! a 7/10 and its follow up, Elevate, a highly recommended 8/10. I believe this is her sixteenth album and it's happy to do something very different again, comprising a set of eleven highly varied covers.

Covers albums are often inconsistent and highly varied ones all the more so and I have to say right out of the gate that this is definitely one of those. However, the best material is excellent and the opening track plays much better to me than the original. Now, it's one of two tracks I didn't know coming in and the one where I didn't even know the band who recorded it, so Aaron's version was the first one I heard, but I did follow up with the original on YouTube. It's the title track, Tattoo, a song originally recorded by the 77s much later than their name suggests. It's a solid opener that I could happily have believed was an original.

It's not the best song here, that being her take on The Pusher, but it's not far behind it and much of the reason is that it feels like she's taken a song she loves and she's rocking it up with her band who clearly appreciate it too. Another that fits the same bill is Even It Up, the song by Heart, from their Bebe le Strange album in 1980. It's an obvious pick for Aaron and she does it justice, with the help of a band who clearly mean it too. The best and worst thing about this album is that she isn't interested in just recording these obvious picks.

It's the best thing because there are songs here that I wouldn't have imagined would fit Aaron but she tackles them anyway and makes them work. Many of these show up at the end of the album in a quartet by Hole, Elton John, Elastica and the Undertones, but I'd throw in the Alice Cooper cover too. The best of them is Connection, the only Elastica song I know, which is a fundamentally bouncy alt pop song. Especially given all the negative notes I'd jotted down on the way to that one, I would have thought it would be a notable failure, but it isn't. In fact, it's one of the biggest successes of the album, even if it doesn't try to add anything to the original.

It's the worst thing because the less obvious choices don't always work, in part because Aaron has little wish, it seems, to stamp her own authority on them. The best covers in my mind are the ones that grow into something new in a fresh version. Johnny Cash's famous take on Hurt is surely the best example nowadays. It's not that he does it better than Nine Inch Nails, it's that he does it in a very different way and sells it so well that even Trent Reznor says that it's Cash's song now. Aaron has so much variety in her musical background that she could have reinvented these songs in wild ways, if she only chose to do so. For the most part, she chose not to.

The first example is Are You Gonna Be My Girl, the famous Jet single, and Aaron doesn't do a bad job by any metric I can conjure up but it somehow feels wrong anyway. It feels like a karaoke song, as if she's singing live to a recorded backdrop that doesn't seem any different from the original. I would be blown away if she did this at my local karaoke spot, but I'm disappointed by its inclusion here. The same goes for Go Your Own Way, the Fleetwood Mac classic, and Teenage Kicks, the old Undertones gem, famously John Peel's favourite song. She does her job, but there's no reason for these covers to exist. She doesn't add anything.

The songs in between the best and worst are ones like What Is and What Should Never Be, Is It My Body and Malibu. The latter was a real surprise, because it's a Hole song and I'd have thought that Aaron's approach to music was inherently differently to theirs. I'm not a particular fan of the song but this is a strong version of it. The other two have moments, especially early on, where they fall into that karaoke mindset, Aaron's delivery just not right. She brings a sultry approach to Robert Plant and attempts Alice Cooper's sneer, but both fail. However, when those songs ramp up, she's able to gel with the band and suddenly it all works. The longer these run, the better they get.

With a quick mention of Elton John's Someone Saved My Life Tonight as the worst track here, not because Aaron does anything wrong but because I can't stand the original to begin with and she doesn't change my mind on that with her version, I'll get to The Pusher, which is wonderful. What has to be said first is that she seems to be covering the Nina Simone version, even though it was a Hoyt Axton song made famous by Steppenwolf, and that's a good thing because this approach is a real gift for Aaron's vocal talents and she feels more natural tackling this than anything else.

So it's a mixed bag, almost inevitably so. I appreciate Aaron stepping out of her comfort zone with a few of these choices, not that she has a particularly restrictive comfort zome. She surprised me with the Hole and especially the Elastica songs. However, the best songs are primarily the easier choices, Tattoo and Even It Up and especially The Pusher. I just wish she'd have tried to make these songs her own, rather than merely demonstrating that she can sing them. Of course she can! She's Lee Aaron. But I'm going to leave these wondering how What Is and What Should Never Be would sound like as a swing song, even though that's not what she and her band deliver here.

Yaşru - Bilinmeze (2024)

Country: Turkey
Style: Doom Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 20 Apr 2024
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | YouTube

Yaşru have been around since 2009 and they play doom metal with occasional folk elements and an atmospheric overlay. This is their sixth album, but it's my first by them and I'm impressed. I do like my doom and I like it even more when it crosses into folk metal, as this does often. Both Dünya and Gün Batımında open with long intros of Berk Öner playing ethnic Turkish instruments and I'd be up for listening to both these songs even if they didn't eventually heavy up with metal crunch. There's also a clean vocal in the latter, and it becomes more frequent as the album runs on, making for an additional obvious folk element.

Initially, Öner, who sings and plays guitar in addition to those ethnic instruments, sings harsh, but it's a growl that aims for texture rather than aggression. Sometimes it's forceful and sometimes gentle, but it has a rich timbre that reminded me of Seigneur V. Sangdragon from Winds of Sirius, a French gothic metal band I wish had recorded more than one album. This approach continues to grow with the album too, perhaps most evident on the title track, when it's a gentle rumble that's happy to play with emphasis under the atmospheric keyboard overlay.

Dünya is a wonderful opening track, the longest song on the album at a breath over eight minutes and one that builds over that time. After that folk intro, it finds a groove and milks it, with Öner's voice gradually growing as it goes, initially buried so deeply in the mix that it seems to be more of a texture than a delivery mechanism for lyrics but eventually taking over as the focal point. Much of the groove comes from a repetitive riff, Öner's guitar merging with Ömer Serezli's bass, but an evocative keyboard layer keeps it constantly interesting.

I'm not seeing anyone credited on keyboards and it sounds far too electronic to count as another ethnic instrument, but those keyboards shape Yaşru's sound far more substantially than I thought on a first listen. They never seem to do anything flash, just add a slowly dancing texture over what the traditional instruments are doing. However, the resulting combination draws us into an almost trance state and we start imagining that it's doing things that I seriously doubt it's actually doing, like veering into choral effects. I'm pretty sure they're not there, but I kept hearing them anyway.

Bilinmeze translates from the Turkish as Into the Unknown and there's some of that here, Kozmik Yolculuk being roughly what you think it is, a Cosmic Journey. However, unknown here felt like the shadowy world of dream rather than the far reaches of space. These journeys aren't taking us just to somewhere we've never been, which the folk elements might suggest, but a different world on which the rules we're used to reality following simply don't apply. Certainly, time seemed to pass at a different rate while I listened. It's not a particularly long album, at just over half an hour, but it's at once over in a blink and substantial enough to last forever.

Maybe that's partly because Yaşru don't seem to vary what they do but actually evolve across the course of the album. Dünya has that ethnic intro, but it finds its groove and pretty much stays on it throughout, Kozmik Yolculuk following suit. When Gün Batımında shifts back to the ethnic intro approach, we think we're looping back to hear another Dünya, but it adds the clean voice that's a nudge further into folk metal. That returns on the title track and, by the time Son Nefes wraps up the album, appropriately enough given that it means Last Breath, we start to wonder how much of the vocals were clean. Over the first half of the album, not a heck of a lot. Over the second half, surely a far more considerable amount.

I liked Dünya immediately and I keep coming back to it, but the other songs keep growing on me. Bilinmeze is a full minute shorter and it seems to have a much simpler groove, but it won't leave me be. I fall into it every time through, never mind that I don't understand the Turkish lyrics and never mind how much more I notice Serezli's elegant bass runs on each subsequent listen. It's just hypnotic to me, perhaps even more than the album as a whole. So I'll call out Dünya and Bilinmeze as highlights, along with Gün Batımında, which means At Sunset.

Three highlights out of five means an 8/10, I think, and I don't want to move on to something else. This album is already becoming an old friend. I have a feeling I might be coming back to this often for feelgood purposes. I feel acutely comfortable in its company but it also refuses to let me think too deeply about it. It's one of those albums that will always be there, doing its thing regardless of what I might want but bleeding closer into my veins as it does so. Now I have five earlier albums to explore to see how Yaşru got to this sound. I look forward to the yolculuk.

Thursday 9 May 2024

Vanden Plas - The Empyrean Equation of the Long Lost Things

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

I've heard a lot of Vanden Plas on Chris Franklin's highly recommended Raised on Rock radio show over the past few years, because he's a big fan of theirs, but they're another band who released a debut in the mid-nineties, when I was too busy with real life to focus on new rock and metal, and they didn't cross my path when I found my way back. They're a German band, from Kaiserslautern near the French border, and they play a highly commercial brand of progressive metal that's just as ambitious and complex as we might expect but fundamentally rooted in melody. This counts as their eleventh studio album and their first since The Ghost Experiment, which came out as a pair of albums in 2019 and 2020.

There are six tracks here and they're all strong, but a few listens firms up that they can be ranked relatively easily. The best are the longest, Sanctimonarium, which runs just over ten minutes, and March of the Saints, the epic of the album that wraps it up at almost sixteen. Next are the shorter tracks, My Icarian Flight, The Sacrilegious Mind Machine and They Call Me God, which sit in the six to nine minute range. Finally, there's the opening title track, which is the weakest of them, rather surprisingly.

That's because it's not really an opening song, just an opening track. It's a kind of an intro, but an odd one that lasts eight minutes, which is longer than two of the five actual songs. It's truly more of a sampler, running through what those five songs are going to do later in the album. Most of it unfolds instrumentally, with the vocals kicking in with what feels like a chorus and turns out to be from the closer, March of the Saints. The second line is the title of the song. It's enjoyable but it's not particular coherent because it's inherently a patchwork piece.

My Icarian Flight is a coherent prog metal song and it builds well, but it's quickly overshadowed by Sanctimonarium, which is where the album truly finds its feet. The Sacrilegious Mind Machine, on the other side of that epic, suffers in the same way, being a highly enjoyable song that we'd praise in isolation, should we hear it on the radio, but clearly losing out in comparison to the song that it happens to be next to on this album.

Like everything here, Sanctimonarium features elegant melodies over a punchier backdrop that I read is heavier than Vanden Plas's more recent albums and more like what they did on their early ones. I'm certainly interested in checking out their 1994 debut, Colour Temple, based on that note, to see if it holds true. That backdrop falls away somewhat during verses to emphasise the vocals of Andy Kuntz, which is an approach I don't always appreciate but is done so well here that it's almost a textbook in how to do it right. There's a wonderful calmer section four minutes in that features a flurry of activity nonetheless.

What else is new here is the keyboard work of Alessandro del Vecchio, the session player who's on pretty much every album released by Frontiers nowadays. Vanden Plas have rarely changed their line-up, Kuntz and the Lill brothers, guitarist Stephan and drummer Andreas, have been in place since the band's formation in 1986, while bassist Torsten Reichert joined as long ago as 1990, four years before their debut. However, Günter Werno, their keyboard player since 1990 left in 2023, so Del Vecchio has joined in his stead.

What I'm reading suggests that Del Vecchio has followed Werno's lead relatively closely, with the slight exception that he favours older keyboards. Certainly I'm hearing plenty of seventies organ on Sanctimonarium in the time honoured Jon Lord style, along with the more modern equivalent. He certainly doesn't favour that approach exclusively, so it's more of a delight when it shows up, a section on The Sacrilegious Mind Machine lovely behind rhythmic guitarwork. I believe the strings on They Call Me God are really his keyboards mimicking strings, so he's certainly staying varied.

The Sacrilegious Mind Machine and They Call Me God are excellent second half songs, enough so that I can't really choose between them. Initially, I easily favoured the latter, even though its first half plays out like a melancholy ballad, starting soft with piano, those keyboard generated strings and a half-whispered vocal from Kuntz. He escalates joyously in the chorus, emphasising just how good his intonation play is and Stephan Lill ramps things up midway with a searing guitar solo. On further listens, though, the former keeps getting better and now I can't pick between them.

Of course, I'll pick Sanctimonarium and March of the Saints over them every day, because they're absolute gems that underline how Vanden Plas only get better with the breathing space to grow their songs. The riffage here is more reminiscent of Iron Maiden than on earlier songs. There's a gorgeous drop in intensity six minutes into the latter and an impeccable ramp back up, this time in two stages as a sort of tease. Eventually, it returns to some of what we heard on the opener and it works far better when it's the ending of a longer song that's already been substantially developed.

So this isn't a perfect album, but it's a damn fine one. I initially rated it 8/10 because of the three tiers of quality, but ended up increasing that to 9/10 when I realised that the "lesser material" of My Icarian Flight, The Sacrilegious Mind Machine and They Call Me God really constitute a trio of 8/10 songs. Their two longer compatriots warrant 9/10s and they're twenty-five minutes between them. Only the opener really lets the side down and it's hardly a poor track. So 9/10 it is. If you're one of those Dream Theater fans who wishes they'd spend more time knocking out catchy gems in the Pull Me Under vein than extending their instrumental workouts, you should check out Vanden Plas. They may well be your new favourite band.

Rydholm/Säfsund - Kaleidoscope (2024)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2024
Sites: Facebook | YouTube

For all the wild guitar that opens up Now and Forever and thus the album itself, presumably from Kristian Larsen, who's credited here for guitar solos, this is not heavy music. In fact, this may well be the poppiest album I've reviewed thus far at Apocalypse Later. I've gone with melodic rock as a label, which is fair and is where Rydholm and Säfsund tend to play in bands like Grand Illusion and Work of Art respectively, hence the name of their previous collaboration, Art of Illusion. However, this is a little different from that, I believe, hence the new band name.

I haven't heard Art of Illusion so I can't really speak to why this is different but I believe it's due to it being very firmly at the softer end of melodic rock, veering occasionally into prog rock and jazz but with just as much pop music here as there is rock, much of it funky in nature. Many songs, like the two openers, Now and Forever and Hey You, are often reminiscent of soft rock bands like Toto and the commercial extreme of prog rock like the Alan Parsons Project. I caught moments where commercial era Yes came to mind too, especially in the changes, but Hey You honestly owes just as much to Michael Jackson as any of the names you were more likely expecting to hear.

What that means is that I get to bring up Into the Music for the first time. I've talked in occasional reviews about the Friday Rock Show, a BBC radio radio show which was mandatory listening for any UK fans of rock and metal during the eighties. Well, Tommy Vance, the presenter of that show, did a year of presenting a second show, Into the Music, that focused on the lighter end of rock music. If that was running now, I'd be utterly sure that producer Tony Wilson would dialling Stockholm to see if Rydholm/Säfsund would be in London at any point and, if so, if they'd want to pop over to the Maida Vale studios to record a session.

That's because their core sound is in between those two openers, as highlighted by the next bunch of tracks, if not all of them over the fifty minutes taken up by the remaining ten songs.

What's Not to Love and Seven Signs of Love are bouncy and rooted in melodic rock, but they drift into pop frequently. There are guitar solos here, courtesy of Kristian Larsen on this pair, but with others guesting here and there on later tracks. Some are very tasty and I'm particularly fond of the ones on Seven Signs of Love and 4th of July, the latter performed by Tim Pierce, but crucially they never seem out of place, even with what I'm going to add in the next paragraph.

And that's the horn sections, which are even more obvious on Don't Make Me Do It and 4th of July. There are two here, one introducing this aspect to the band's sound on Now and Forever while the other takes over for the rest of the album. That means that Tom Walsh is a huge part of Rydholm/Säfsund's sound, maybe not as much as Rydholm or Säfsund but easily up there with Larsen. What matters is that he isn't soloing on an electric guitar but delivering lead trumpet and fluegelhorn. I've heard saxophones on extreme metal albums lately, so I won't suggest that the mere presence of fluegelhorn makes this pop music but it kinda helps.

Certainly, songs like The Bet, that sounds like a cross between Toto and Queen, and Sara's Dream and Bucket List, which are more like the former without the latter, would sound even more so, if there was less trumpet and more guitar. At points on the latter two, I started to imagine that this was a Toto covers album performed by Postmodern Jukebox, merely with only one singer in Lars Säfsund rather than a string of different guests. Just to highlight how these halves of the sound work together, Bucket List features both an excellent saxophone solo from Wojtek Goral and an excellent guitar solo from Larsen.

What this all ends up as is something very easy to listen to. It's often the sound of summer, which isn't necessarily a good thing because it makes me want to go outside and I live in Phoenix rather than Stockholm, where the sun is a fiery ball of death in the sky that wants to kill me. I'll settle for sitting in my office feeling happier because of the sheer perkiness of this material. My favourite track is surely Now and Forever, which is also probably the most rock song here, but I'm very fond of The Plains of Marathon, another Toto-esque song in the grand sweep after the openers. All of these do the perky thing, though, and it's a generous album at almost an hour, enough to make anyone happy.

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Pearl Jam - Dark Matter (2024)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I was born in 1971, so my formative musical years were the eighties, from the early post-punk days when my favourite artist was Adam Ant to my thrash years in the second half of the decade, where Nuclear Assault had taken over that mantle, via an incredibly varied ride through NWOBHM, hair metal and the various nascent forms of what became extreme metal. I'm also English, so my idea of alternative rock is the journey the eighties took from Bauhaus through the Wedding Present to the Stone Roses rather than what the US produced a decade later. In other words, I'm not really a part of the target audience for Pearl Jam.

However, all that said, I rather enjoyed this. I can listen to the big hits well enough, but they don't wow me. My favourite experience with Pearl Jam was the blistering stripped down version of Bob Dylan's Masters of War that Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready performed at Dylan's 30th anniversary concert. I'm not sure what I expected from a quintessential nineties band in 2024, but there's a lot here and very little of it fits with what I thought I might hear. That's a good thing in my book, just in case you're new here.

Scared of Fear bursts out of the gate like a hard rock song, with a real urgency to it. It may well be my new favourite of their original songs. That continues into React, Respond, which has an almost punky edge that's clearly alternative but kicks it like hard rock too. The bass of Jeff Ament is very prominent here, so much so that it leads the way for serious chunks of the song. The chorus is just as vibrant and bouncy as I tend to think Pearl Jam aren't. And, while Wreckage is softer, more laid back, that bounce never quite leaves the album. This is a much happier album than I ever expected it to be.

Upper Hand may be the epitome of just how upbeat it gets. It's not happy, not precisely, but it's a heck of a lot closer than the opposite. And, with that note that underpins this entire release, I can start throwing out names, because I heard a lot of other people here that I didn't expect from the band with a professionally downbeat singer like Vedder at the mike. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for his vocal talents and have no problem with depressing delivery. Leonard Cohen's first two albums are among my favourites, as are Joy Division's. However, I don't think of him as a singer who can be happy. It's simply not an emotion he channels. This proved me wrong.

It's also worth mentioning that he has such an iconic voice that he stamps his authority over every song he sings, whether it's Pearl Jam's or not. However, he drifts into territory already owned and I could easily hear these songs sung with different, just as established voices. Won't Tell is alt rock in the sense that U2 are alt rock. Can any of you remember that far back into the annals of musical history? Something Special has a pop mentality to it that prompts me to imagine Amy Winehouse singing it. Got to Give reminds me of Bruce Springsteen and the closer, Setting Sun, feels like it's a laid back seventies pop song with a country tinge, maybe something that Neil Diamond could sing, without changing the acoustic guitar and orchestration. And then the Boss could cover that.

Some of it remains entirely alternative in the particular sense that Pearl Jam helped to define in the nineties. React, Respond starts that and Dark Matter continues it with emphasis. This one's a far more edgy song than React, Respond. It's Vedder's vocals and Matt Cameron's drums that do it for me on this one, but much of it is driven by Jeff Ament's bass, just like React, Respond. Of all the alternative songs here, though, I think Dark Matter is the one that rings truest to what I was expecting, an edgier and more modern take on what they did back in the day. However, the one I'd pick over the others is Running, which is so full of energy that it's almost punk. It's absolutely not what I expected from them, but they do it very well indeed.

So I enjoyed myself and I'm continuing to do so five or six listens in. The songs get stronger and the feelings that this is upbeat and versatile don't go away. Now, I'll always pick the eighties over the nineties and my grounding is always going to remain British, which may explain why I tend to enjoy a lot more of what I hear from European bands today than American ones, whatever the genre. It has to be said right here though that this surprised me, enough that I ought to dive into the Pearl Jam back catalogue, which is a lot more substantial than I expected. I know of their nineties stuff, even if I haven't heard it all, perhaps up to 2000's Binaural, but this is their sixth album since then for twelve overall and maybe I'm finally getting on board. I wonder when I should have started to pay attention.

Thoraway - Navigating Nightfall (2024)

Country: Australia
Style: Heavy/Viking Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 May 2024
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Tiktok | YouTube

Thoraway hail from Brisbane in Queensland, which seems odd given that they play Viking metal. If you dug a hole through the centre of the world from there and survived a trip through it, you'd be in the Canary Islands and Scandinavia is quite a way north from there. However, given that three of the band members have names that sound like they might be Vikings themselves, it isn't a huge stretch. This album doesn't sound like it was written in Norway, mostly because Joseph Wiley sings entirely in English, but it does feel far more authentic than I expected it to be.

It's big and bombastic, often easily categorised as epic metal, but it's also both angry and melodic with a real sense of motion to it, as if the band are playing on a swaying ship that's sailing right at us at a fair clip. Wiley's vocals, occasionally deepened by backing vocals, hold a promise. Thoraway are, well, on their way. This holds for a couple of songs, Pianara and Greetings, which means thirteen minutes because the album isn't short but it only boasts five tracks. Wiley sings primarily clean but there are echoes of harsh for effect. It's all epic and powerful, as Viking metal ought to be.

And then comes Wild Child of the Night, at the heart of the album, to shake this up. Now, it's still epic and powerful, but it sounds very different to the two openers, mostly because the guitars are completely absent for almost a minute. This one has a strong slow groove built out of bass, drums and a commanding vocal and that groove continues even when the guitars show up in surprisingly dissonant fashion. In a way, the effect is very much the same, just more ominous because this ship is bearing down on us in slow motion. In a way, though, it's very different, because it's a story song and so it never gets closer to us than the page in front of us.

The bottom line is that these songs can't be ignored. Whether we feel threatened by this rushing ship or we feel welcomed in kinship by it, it's big and brash and utterly in our face, even when it's taking time for Jan Gustav Engmark's enjoyable bass solo during the second half of Wild Child of the Night and overtly during that song's woah woah sections and the repeated harsh "We salute you!" at the end. This holds as Bedtime Story takes over, because the theatrics that open it up are rather like a pirate, with all the traditional trappings, stuck his head through our window and stole us away into what we're going to hear. It's blatant stuff, but it works perfectly with the big and bold sound.

With the exception of Bedtime Story, the songs get progressively longer, almost as if the band are teasing us into what they do and getting deeper each time. Pianara kicks off over six minutes and Greetings is a little longer again, Wild Child of the Night is eight and a half and Einherjar (Army of One) is almost eleven. At a breath over six, Bedtime Story breaks that trend, but its intro helps it to feel longer than it actually is. It's long enough to feature a strong guitar solo from either Truls Nilssen or Martin Alexander Einarsen. On most of these songs, the riffs are more important than the solos, because of how they bludgeon, but the latter are still excellent.

Wild Child of the Night has to be my favourite song here, but Einherjar (Army of One) won't leave me alone, perhaps because Thoraway benefit from the added song length. It feels more versatile too, the general approach being the same but the harsh vocals emphasised more and a few more fast and extreme sections that go along with that. As if to counter it, there's a looser exploratory section midway that feels like the ship that is Thoraway isn't barrelling down on us but journeying nonetheless and finding itself in new waters. It's wonderful texture, all the more because of how heavy the sections either side of it happen to be.

I like this album, all the way to the comradely vocals that wrap up Einherjar (Army of One), almost like a drunken choir. Nothing about it is small. Nothing about it is subtle, except maybe that single stretch midway through the closer. It wants our attention and it's happy to grab it. It's also happy to sound very heavy, the bass end pumped up high and the solos always partly buried in the mix. It works because of the sonic assault but it wouldn't for another band, where we want the guitars to be as clear and free as the lead vocals.

I believe this is a debut album, following five singles, only one of which, Greetings, made it to the album, so I presume Thoraway are relatively new. Two members, bassist Jan Gustav Engmark and guitarist Truls Nilssen, were born in Norway, both in Bodø, so I'm guessing that their moving down under prompted this antipodean Viking metal band's formation. The rest of the band are Aussies, it seems, even guitarist Martin Alexander Einarsen, whose name doesn't suggest that, but they're on target with this sound. I look forward to hearing it develop.