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.

Universal Hippies - Astral Visions (2019)

Country: Greece
Style: Stoner Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook

Regular readers will know that I just can't get enough of what's coming out of Greece nowadays. Here's yet another impressive album, this time courtesy of a stoner rock band from, I believe, Kavala in the northeast. At least, that appears to be the home of Stavros Papadopoulos, the prolific guitarist who conjured up this band. I also see a local connection as, among a number of other bands (Super Vintage, Freerock Saints, Hard Driver, Hush n' Rush), he also handles guitar for Revolution Highway, whose vocalist David Fefolt appears to be right here in Phoenix.

I can't say that everything here is Papadopoulos, because he benefits from some able support from Jim Petridis on bass and Chris Lagios on drums, but this is a guitar album for guitar fans and Papadopoulos is front and centre on everything. It's entirely instrumental, but it's much more grounded than your usual instrumental guitar album, because he's not a shredder, even when he's soloing. He has a clear background in riff-based blues rock and I'm not surprised at all to find him behind the recent Shadowplay Project tribute to Rory Gallagher.

Zenith Rising, which opens up the album, sets the stage very well. After a little texture at the beginning, he finds a groove and follows it naturally, while Petridis and Lagios play their parts to help him. Empire Mind, Trilogy of Dreams and others carry on very much in the same vein, the riffs new and the solos new but the tone the same. These all carry an eastern flavour but not so overt as to seem middle eastern. These are eastern in the way some of Rainbow's songs were eastern, just a little heavier.

This walks that fine line between rock and metal. I'm seeing it labelled as stoner rock most often, sometimes psychedelic rock, and that's fair enough, but, mystical song titles aside, this is really just instrumental rock with roots in the blues and production that adds the heaviness of metal. There's some jazz thrown in for good measure; a little folk here and there, like the beginning of Monolithic; and even some flamenco too, on Starchild Galaxy.

The first signs of specific influences come in Eternal Wisdom, which could have been an Iron Maiden instrumental, especially once it gets going. Like plenty of Maiden songs, this is Wishbone Ash heavied up, but the midsection is built out of NWOBHM riffs. The most overt influence shows up on the last track, Transcending Reality, also the longest on the album. It kicks off so reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's No Quarter that I wondered for a moment if it was a cover, but it finds other ground to explore as the track runs on.

This is good stuff. It would benefit from more variety in tone, because the majority of these tracks tread very similar ground. I'm hard pressed to pick a favourite piece or call out highlight tracks, because they're all good but none are sufficiently different from the rest to warrant special mention. I can say that each of them is able to stand alone as a strong example of what Universal Hippies do.

Each song benefits from a reliable rhythm section which provides an solid backdrop for Papadoupolos's guitar, which finds no end of impressive grooves and can solo without ever seeming to show off. It has a lot of texture to it and some of what he does is very subtle. He's as impressive when he's not doing much at all as he is when he's doing everything. Each note counts.

I see that this is the band's third album together, preceded by Evolution of Karma last year and Mother Nature Blues the year before. However, I also see another one called Dead Hippie's Revolution, which appears to be a slightly different version of Mother Nature Blues. Maybe it's an alternative release. I'm interested in hearing where the Universal Hippies came from and I'm also intrigued about these other bands that Papadopolous seems to be collecting like trading cards. More to come, I'm sure!

Monday, 9 September 2019

Status Quo - Backbone (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Wikipedia

Status Quo are an institution. Francis Rossi and Alan Lancaster founded the band as far back as 1962, the same year as the Rolling Stones, but everyone remembers the late Rick Parfitt as their guitarist and he's no longer there. He was in the band for almost half a century, from 1967 to 2016, and he was on every one of what was apparently 32 studio albums, this being the first without him. I wondered if Rossi would keep the band going but I'm glad that he did.

I came in exactly halfway into that long run of albums, with 1983's Back to Back, which is coincidentally the line I'd draw between their old stuff and their new stuff. After a couple of psychedelic pop albums, they found their recognisable hard rock style and nailed it with 1972's Piledriver. While the rest of the decade saw a lot of commercial success, they were still a heads down no nonsense boogie band in 1983. By the time they recorded In the Army Now in 1986, that no longer held true. They've been a pop band for a pretty long time now.

And I highlight that now because this is heavier than I remember the Quo at any point since Back to Back. Cut Me Some Slack and Backing Off aren't pop songs looking for yet another chart position, they're old school rockers. I Wanna Run Away with You would sound like a late seventies hit if it didn't clearly have 21st century production values. The same goes for Get Out of My Head, but the early seventies; it's the best thing I've heard from the Quo in almost four decades. Even the title track, with its woo woo, na na and round vocal sections, runs on simple but effective driving guitars.

This makes me happy. The Quo got very comfortable with the charts and their albums featured a lot of songs that were all about vocals and keyboards. On this album, the guitars are front and centre and the drums aren't far behind them in the mix. Of course we can hear Francis Rossi singing but even when he finds a commercial melody, like on Better Take Care, it's still a guitar song. Frankly, I need to go back to 2011's Quid Pro Quo, the previous studio album, to see if this approach is brand new or I'm just out of touch.

Parfitt's replacement here is Richie Malone and he sounds right at home with this material. Hilariously, he seems to still have a day job, but I presume that may not last as the Quo are touring a lot lately. The other new fish is Leon Cave on drums, who took over from Matt Letley in 2013. It's good to see Andy Bown and Rhino Edwards still there, as they've been for decades. Bown joined on keyboards in 1976, though he'd been guesting since Hello! in 1973, and Edwards joined on bass in 1985.

Rossi has said that, "This new material had to be seriously good" and that's probably fair. The band had to prove their relevance in a post-Parfitt line-up and I'm surprised at how well they did that. There's no way that anyone could mistake this for any other band, but it wouldn't be difficult to think of this as having been released a number of decades earlier than it was. I'm rather shocked at how much I liked this, though not all the songs are up to the same level of quality. But there's definitely life in the old dog of two head yet.

Piranha - First Kill (2019)

Country: Switzerland
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 6 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Piranha is such a thrash name. Even if Exodus hadn't recorded a song of the same name, most of the bands called Piranha would still be recording thrash metal because of course they would. This Piranha hail from Switzerland and, sure enough, they're a thrash band though they have a secondary NWOBHM sound in there too. Just listen to a song like Turning Point, which blisters along in the time honoured Teutonic thrash style until suddenly it turns into Iron Maiden for a while.

For a while it sounds like Destruction with maybe some Sodom in there too. The opener, Chain Reaction, is packed full of their buzzsaw guitar tone and appropriately wild vocals and it doesn't let up for a moment. Turning Point continues with that thrash metal onslaught until the Maiden section midway through that's slower and cleaner. Then it speeds up again and we're right back where we were, the guitars of Oz and Skullshredder blistering along at a rate of knots like this is the mid eighties and Piranha want to test the limits of speed.

But then they slow down a little. A number of songs here, like For Your Own Security and Flight or Fight, are played at a mid-pace with less blistering and more chugging. Some of them ought to do well at getting a pit going. If their thinking is mostly still thrash, some move into a power metal mindset, like Rage of Fire with phrasing like Accept and guitarwork like Iron Maiden. Target Failed revels in that Accept power metal sound and Squaller's vocals start to sound a little less Schmier and a little more Udo.

Perhaps my favourite song here is Resistance to Change, a really old school speed metal song right out of 1985. This wouldn't have been out of place on the Speed Kills compilations that Music for Nations put out back in the day, full of Whiplash and Exciter and Hallows Eve and the rest. That's where my ears first encountered my very favourite Exodus song, A Lesson in Violence, which this song initially resembles. It goes to other places too, with even a hint of doom at one point, albeit not for long.

The other song I kept going back to was No More Voices. It's the longest of the ten tracks on offer and it's the most varied. It starts and ends at the mid-pace in that combination of speed chugging and riff-driven power metal, but it has a glorious midsection. Around the four minute mark, the chugging finds a neat groove and a whole army of whispers leaps in as if to wrap it up in gossip. It's original and impressive and the solo that emerges sounds all the better for it.

Every new thrash band that I discover is a good one in my book, because I'm so happy that the genre hasn't died out the way we thought it might in the nineties. Piranha are pretty decent and I hope they bode well for the other albums I'm seeing coming out of Switzerland of late.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Eternal Storm - Come the Tide (2019)

Country: Spain
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
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Hey, a melodic death metal band with a male vocalist for a change! That does seem odd to say but the dice have been rolling the other way recently in my vicinity. Eternal Storm hail from Madrid in Spain and they make interesting music. I liked this immediately, after a delicate guitar intro blew through a wall of blastbeats to find a perfect combination of melody and harshness. But then, a minute into the second part of the opening track, we're treated to a saxophone that doesn't feel remotely out of place.

I always know I'm on to something special when I find that I have trouble in composing a review because the music just captures me and won't let me free to actually write. It took three times through before I could put words down on the virtual page. I wonder how long this took the band to write, because there's so much here and it's ballsy. It isn't just the saxophone on Through the Wall of Light Pt. II, it's the clean vocals that precede and succeed it. It's the point later where the music retreats to a plodding bass line and a distant echo of guitars, with rain dominating the foreground.

Even as I enjoyed this ballsy approach, I could hear people complaining that this isn't what melodic death metal is supposed to be, but it's exactly what I'm looking for. You wouldn't believe how many melodeath albums I skip over for review because they're inherently the same as the last one and the one before that. I want something different. I want riffs and blastbeats, but I want textures and soundscapes too. I want stories in the songs and I want to feel them escape in front of me. I want this.

Another ballsy aspect is that this debut album runs just shy of an hour and that's ambitious. The two-part Through the Wall of Light opens up the album as a fourteen minute epic, a couple of other songs break the ten minute mark and only one of the eight on offer runs less than six. It's wild to realise that this is a debut, because the songwriting is notably mature, reminiscent of Orphaned Land in the way that it weaves melodies throughout the darkness. The band's name may highlight a focus on the storm, but the cover shows us that there's always light poking through somewhere.

One reason this feels smoother than most melodeath is that the guitars are a little low in the mix, even with a pair of guitarists. Another is that both of them, Jaime Torres and Daniel Maganto, also play keyboards. When it gets soft, they're usually the focus, picking with delicacy. When it gets brutal, the drums of Mateo Novati lead the way and Kheryon's deep but warm growl at the fore with them; the guitars are still playing with melodies.

Like a few albums this year, this is so consistent and so consistent in the way that it varies styles within each track that the tracks themselves cease to stand out, instead merging to become one hour long piece of music. What I find following me away from this album is the way that the band grow a sound that's harsh and dark but still beautiful. I don't suggest that you dance to it, but it's hard not to move to it. Maybe I'm adrift on that storm, but I'm not being buffeted about by its tumult; I must be floating in the eye with a majesty all around me.

Is The Mountain a better song than Of Winter and Treason? I have no idea. I find myself caught up in each of them and always wanting to explore more. I also find that, each time through, I argue with myself about whether I like the points when the heaviness gives way to peace or vice versa, and I can't make my mind up. Of Winter and Treason is sublime in the way it does both. The Scarlet Lake adds something close to death/doom and I grinned like a fool.

Some of my favourite albums of all time are those which I liked immediately but found deep enough to explore further on each visit. Beyond All Temples and Myths by Winds of Sirius is one such and the closest I'd found to that this year was Aephanemer's Prokopton, which was my March album of the month. Well, until now, that is. This feels deeper still, less driven by keyboards but just as driven by songwriting. It's exquisite stuff throughout and it'll take something truly special to deflect this from my September album of the month, especially as Insomnium's new album won't be out until October.

The Neptune Power Federation - Memoirs of a Rat Queen (2019)

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

From the land down under come the Neptune Power Federation with their fourth album. I hadn't heard of this bunch before, but I'll definitely be checking out albums one to three sometime soon, because this is wild. They hail from Sydney, Australia, and they play an odd mix of styles that I had no reason to expect. Hey, "psychedelic rock" is a wide genre, running from hippie folk to stoner metal, so my ears are well and truly open, but I wasn't expecting Can You Dig, which may best be described as Suzi Quatro meets Hawkwind.

Yeah, that was my reaction too, but this is a good sound, with a blistering vocal from the intriguingly named Screaming Loz Sutch, surely the "imperial priestess" of the lyrics and the possessor of an astoundingly strong voice. Whatever the style the band play in, and that varies from song to song, she reminds of Grace Slick but on steroids. To highlight the variety, the band's description of themselves is style-averse: their Facebook page going with, "10 Megatons of neanderthal rock fuelled by Satan and space hallucinogens." I can see that.

Watch Our Masters Bleed is an exercise in power and control, starting quiet but getting seriously intense, Sutch outstripping the power in the guitars' power chords just because she can. By the way, the guitarists go by Inverted CruciFox and Search & DesTroy, so there's an overt sense of humour here. The band are completed by Jaytanic Ritual on bass and Mr. Styx on drums.

If the Hawkwind sound is there from the start, this song follows Lemmy into Motörhead mode during its midsection, even if it ends like the Beatles. The variety continues to be delightful. Flying Incendiary Club for Subjugating Demons (how's that for a song title?) starts out like a satanic Sandy Denny playing call and return with AC/DC, but it moves into Joan Jett singing for the Ram Jam Band.

Rat Queen is truer to the style that Sutch fits best, the Jefferson Airplane acid trip with major emphasis on power. There's blues in there too, with a harmonica from hell. The blues kicks off the appropriately titled Bound for Hell in subdued fashion but it ramps up soon enough. I'll Make a Man Out of You is a sing-along glam song but an intense one. The Reaper Comes for Thee, as the title suggests, gets notably doomy on us before ending in a spiritual round, of all things. Only Pagan Inclinations, a harmonied pop song heavied up, did little for me.

I really like this band. These songs have energy levels that range from high to out of this frickin' world. The musicians kick seven shades of ass with a backing section of the sort that only Aussie rock bands seem to be able to do this easily, but I especially dig what this imperial priestess is laying down.

Watching videos, I see that she favours tall, ornate headdresses that hint at her being about eight feet tall. Frankly, her voice is bigger than that! She explodes out of this album like the medium isn't sufficient to contain her. There were many points where I honestly felt like she might climb out of my speakers to keep on singing on my desk. That's a feeling I haven't had since Noddy Holder of Slade and I honestly wasn't ever expecting to repeat. I really need to see this band live!

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Tool - Fear Inoculum (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 30 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I've long enjoyed Tool without being a fan of Tool, if that makes sense in a world where people either love them or hate them. I adore songs like Schism and Lateralus but don't immediately reach orgasm the moment anyone mentions their name the way certain of my friends do. The ten minute title track that opens this album is another of those songs for me to adore. The rest of the album? Well, let's see...

Fear Inoculum itself is a gorgeous creation and it's a very careful one. It has everything Tool do well: strange rhythms that build and multiply, weird lyrics delivered in that characteristic way, a bass that thinks it's a lead guitar. And it grows, like a progressive rock song that wants to hang out in a metal crowd. The heavier parts are less underlined by production, though I have no doubt they'll be heavy on stage, making this one feel even more like King Crimson than usual.

Pneuma starts out similarly: drums like a rattlesnake's tail, a riff setting the scene for its later build, then another to actually underpin the track. If Fear Inoculum hadn't been on the album, the majority of what people would say about it would be said about this song instead. It doesn't hold together quite as well for me but it's another good song, a deeper one that's warming up for me, as are others.

And, with over twenty-two minutes gone, we're two tracks in to seven. Given how Tool play with their lyrical structures, doing things like making their rhythms follow the Fibonacci sequence, I wonder about the song lengths. Fear Inoculum is ten minutes long and Pneuma is eleven. Invincible is twelve and Descending is thirteen. Culling Voices and the oddity that is Chocolate Chip Trip are fourteen between them. 7empest, to wrap things up, is fifteen. I do wonder what they had to change to make that work.

Tool have never been known for short songs but this is something extreme for them. It allows them to be as non-commercial as they like (are they going to play any of these songs on the radio anywhere?) and nail that hypnotic build that they do so well. Each song here is clearly Tool but it's more Tool than usual. In a world where Soen play Tool-esque material almost as well as Tool ever did, this is Tool squared for emphasis.

On my first time through, I felt that Fear Inoculum was the obvious standout track, but I'd heard it before as a single and got used to it. Other tracks blurred together on that first listen, but are finding their own voices as I listen afresh. Descending is emerging as another standout because of all the interesting things going on in its midsection, but it took me a few listens for it to come into focus. There's just so much material here to process all at once, the album running just shy of eighty minutes.

The song that ought to stand out is 7empest, as the longest track, the final one and the only one to follow the five minutes of experimental electronica that is Chocolate Chip Trip. Its most obvious difference to justify this odd separation from everything else is that it's angrier: the guitar more overt, the vocals more antagonistic, the drums more metal. It still plays with the pulsing rhythms and generates the strange patterns we expect, but it does so with a punch rather than a wave. It's a darker trip for what is really more prog rock than alt metal. Oddly it's the one song thus far I'm not finding a way into.

I wonder how this album will be received. The die hards are going to love it because it's Tool but more so. They've waited thirteen years but they've got a couple of albums worth at once and it's good stuff. However, anyone not in the fan club is going to be twice as confused by what's going on as normal and this is definitely not where those intrigued by Tool should start out.

Nevain - Hidden (2019)

Country: Israel
Style: Atmospheric Gothic Doom Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

I've been enjoying a whole collection of one man projects on Bandcamp lately and here's another one, from Uri Jeffrey, who's located somewhere in Israel. He plays atmospheric gothic doom metal, or something like it. The gothic is more prominent than the doom but there's plenty of atmosphere with all eight tracks instrumental except for choral effects.

While some of these one man releases seem to be one track regurgitated over and over under different titles, Nevain is reasonably varied. Each of these tracks distinguished themselves in some way except maybe for a couple late on which blurred together.

The title track provides the first half of doomy bookends. This one is slow but with a lively, albeit rather melancholy, atmosphere. It speeds up midway as a presumably synthesised choir kicks in, but it never stays fast. Nevain has a grandiose sound that comes out of Jeffrey's gothic influences but it works well, perhaps never more than when the violin shows up five minutes in.

Those who came for doom may want to skip forward to the last song, Fields of Grey, which really plays it up for the first time, though there are hints at points here and there. It's the heaviest track on the album but it features a neat piano melody over its dark chugging.

In between are a succession of tracks that mostly vary the style enough to stand out. Shadowfall has a guitar/drum combo that's too bouncy for doom but it underpins proceedings while the keyboards take over the melody, often in a middle eastern style. Desolate Ways often sounds like a carillon, with its abundance of bells. Pale Distant Light adds a flute and that helps the track feel even more cinematic than it would have been otherwise.

The keyboards often dominate here and I wonder if they're Jeffrey's primary instrument, given that he also plays keyboards and bass for the doom/death band Clapsodra, who had an album out last year. I'm sure that many of these odd instruments, the carillons and flutes and whatnot, are the product of a synthesiser rather than a well-stocked music room. If I have a complaint at all here, it's that these other instruments don't sound more real.

Instrumentals don't have to sound like classical pieces played on rock band instrumentation. The most overt band influence here is on Disharmony, which I'm happy to say is not disharmonious. When it gets past its intro, it feels very much like a Paradise Lost song, albeit sans Gregor Mackintosh's highly recognisable guitar tone. There's a lot of Paradise Lost here, from various phases of their career, down to the electronica beats on Desolate Ways. Even the song titles are quintessential Paradise Lost.

I like this album. It's consistently good, though not consistently great, and it made for pleasant company while working, enough so that I ended up leaving it on repeat for a while. I'd give it 7/10 for Paradise Lost fans like me but 6/10 for everyone else.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Jesus the Snake - Black Acid, Pink Rain (2019)

Country: Portugal
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 11 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Youtube

As if to emphasise the impression that nobody in Portugal seems interested in making any sort of music except instrumental psychedelic rock, here's a nice example (another nice example!) of that genre, this time from Braga, not too far from the northern border with Galicia. While it does heat up at appropriate points, much of it is laid back and the obvious comparison has to be Pink Floyd, even if the second and third tracks weren't called Floyds I and Floyds II as a giveaway.

This isn't the nine parts of Shine On You Crazy Diamond, extended to almost fifty minutes and with no vocals at all, but you wouldn't be too far wrong if you imagine that. Certainly the eighteen minutes of Floyds I and II tend to explore that sort of tone, but the style doesn't stay there and the fine keyboard work of Gonçalo Palmas doesn't fit that sort of song. This is both rockier and jazzier, those keyboards often being in that heavy organ style of the early seventies.

For a while in Floyds I, though, I was waiting for the moment when I could start singing, "Remember when you were young". It kept almost arriving but it never quite did, before the song started to explore other destinations. About four minutes in, it livens up and Crazy Diamond could never have had that, given its subject. As much as I like everyone here, I really enjoyed those keyboards, which add an extra dimension to the song.

Floyds II is my favourite here, though it's also the most familiar. It finds a groove almost immediately that emulates that of the cover of Bob Dylan's Going Going Gone which Bill Frisell, Robin Holcomb and Wayne Horvitz played on the Rubáiyát album to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Elektra Records. Find it. Trust me.

Beyond being reminiscent of one of the most exquisitely beautiful songs ever recorded, it's somehow deliciously laid back and subtly progressive at the same time. There are points that remind of King Crimson: chords and changes, as well as the windchimes that are such a tasty touch four minutes in. This one livens up too, an important thing here because each of the five songs on this album last around ten minutes and they need that breathing room.

Duna follows on well. Again, there's that laid back jazz influence but this one has a dalliance with lounge music, as filtered through progressive rock. It's like Focus landed a residence in Las Vegas. Black Acid, Pink Rain gets a lot heavier but it never sheds that mindset. The delightful drums of João Costa kick it off like that Focus residency in Vegas turned out to be in a tiki room and they had to add exotica into the mix. Those keyboards are an emphatic driving force here, but I often got caught up in the roaming bass of Rui Silva.

For those of you paying close attention, I haven't mentioned the guitar yet. Most psychedelic rock albums nowadays are driven by their guitar, often an overtly fuzzy lead. Jorge Lopes does a great job here, but that's not what he's playing. While he's happy to solo away whenever needed, he's a subtle and unselfish guitarist and this album benefits as much from what he doesn't play as what he does.

If that sounds oddly contrary, that's this album through and through. It's a beautiful record worthy of solid exploration, but it's also an album that is easily lost. It can drift away from us, not because it's unworthy background music but because it's worthy background music for a weird trip, especially once those keyboards really start pushing on the title track. I think it's best heard in the wee hours of the morning on a pair of good headphones. I'm planning to try that tonight.

Cabrakaän - Cem Anahuac My Home (2019)

Country: Canada
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

My previous pair of reviews were of melodic death metal and symphonic metal. In some ways, this Mexican album from Canada is a surprising combination of the two. The band were founded in Toluca, just west of Mexico City, back in 2012 but they're based nowadays in Calgary, Alberta, an odd choice given how overtly Mexican they are. Apparently, they played the Metalocalypstick Festival in Lone Butte, BC in 2017 and loved the place so much they moved north. By the way, I love that festival name!

Cabrakaän sing about Mesoamerican myth and folklore, include instrumentation from pre-Hispanic times and use imagery from that era as well. Just look at the hummingbird on the album cover. The Mayans saw the hummingbird as the animal that transported wishes and thoughts, the Aztecs saw it as immortal and the Zapotecs put it in charge of drinking sacrificial blood. I believe the band are referencing it as the Aztec god of war and protector of all warriors. A song on the album, Huitzilin, is the Náhuatl name of this god.

I've seen the band described in a number of ways, but folk metal is the one that rings truest, because there are a lot of sounds here and some songs are quite clearly based on folk melodies. I don't know if the melody on La Bruja is a traditional one or a new one written by the band, but it sounds like it could be hundreds of years old. There are a few languages used here, English and Spanish being but two. Cem Anahuac in the album's title is Náhuatl for "land surrounded by water" and it's what the Aztecs named their land in pre-Hispanic times.

Songs like the title track start out folk metal, but they evolve. The vocals are generally clean, courtesy of versatile lead singer Pat Cuikäni, but they are often accompanied by harsh vocals from drummer Marko Cipäktli, often but not always in sections where the guitars ramp up to a death metal level. It has to be said that, even when they do, they're lower in the mix than either the keyboards or a variety of instruments that wouldn't be usually expected to sit above the guitars, like maracas.

The symphonic side comes from Cuikäni being so versatile. She's generally in a pretty standard rock mode, but she shifts whenever the song needs it. On a song like Burning Flame, her vocal is the traditional part, sounding like an early eighties heavy metal singer, at least until the end. On La Bruja, she moves to folk mode, as if she's a travelling minstrel. On Huitzilin, she's a symphonic metal singer and, on the title track, a few sections see her shift into outright operatic style.

Cuikäni is the most obvious reason to pick this up, but it's worth listening to for other reasons, especially the variety, which is often on display even within individual songs. I'm not sure what instruments I'm listening to as The Eagle and the Snake begins, but it's very western. It's very cinematic too and I could almost follow the journey south, as if it started in desert territory and ended up in the mountains. A lot of this is cinematic and it's fair to say that I saw almost as much of this album as I heard.

I'm fascinated to discover just what the Canadians way up there in the frozen wastes of the north are making of their local Mexican transplants. As far as I can tell, they're having a blast up there and finding new fans at each new gig. I'd call myself a fan too, though more of the folkier material than the more traditional songs. Calm in My Storm is done as well as La Bruja, but it would be the latter for me every time.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Astralium - Land of Eternal Dreams (2019)

Country: Italy
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter

I've listened to Astralium's debut album a couple of times now and it hasn't thrilled me, even though it sounds like it ought to.

For a start, it's clearly capable stuff made by a set of musicians who just as clearly know exactly what they're doing and that's insanely important for a symphonic metal album. It's ambitious stuff, with each song trying to do a lot of different things. It's never boring, even at a touch over an hour, an especially long time for a debut. The songs are admirably varied, within the boundaries of the band's chosen style.

And lead vocalist Roberta Pappalardo has a truly glorious voice. She stood out for me even in a genre that's frankly full of truly glorious voices. Is she another Floor Jansen? Maybe not, but it's not unfair to ask the question and that's a serious compliment all on its own.

But... I don't love this. I love a few tracks on it, three of them in a row in fact, but overall it falls short and it took that second listen to figure out quite why: it's so close to textbook that it becomes generic. I wouldn't call anything here filler, but a bunch of songs that initially sound wildly impressive, start to falter as we pay closer attention.

For instance, there isn't a single component part of Hope is Gone that I can call out as wrong. There's nothing wrong with it at all. However, if someone took the entire combined outputs of Nightwish, Epica and After Forever, then poured it all into a clever database and had an accomplished AI generate an original song in that style, this is exactly what it would create. I enjoyed it while it was playing, but I forgot it the moment it ended.

Fortunately, not everything falls into that bucket and I should explore the three in a row I mentioned earlier.

Rising Waves from the Ocean is a gem of a song. It's catchy from moment one and gets catchier. This is how to write a symphonic metal chorus! The vocal performance is spectacular; Roberta has that rare ability to be powerful one moment and teasing the next. She challenges and soars and whispers and does whatever else the song needs, depending on the moment. She's on grand form here, but the band don't lag behind her. This isn't merely a singer's song, because it's also about the riffs and the drums and the orchestration.

My Life is My Eternity starts out the same way, teasing with guitar, soaring with orchestration and then finding power and emphasis. Roberta shifts from sultry to powerful on the turn of a dime. There's a great guitar part in the middle and the choral section is strong. It's not Rising Waves but it's good nonetheless. Whisper in the Silence is the one song that might match it here with its fast begining and memorable drumming. Salvo Grasso is fine playing slowly, but he seems to relish the up tempo stuff. And Roberta reaches some fantastic notes, while Emanuele Alessandro gets a strong solo.

So, three great tracks. The problem is that rest of the album consistently fails to match them, even though it tries for longer than most albums run. I think the male singer epitomises their problem in a microcosm. He's capable and he does exactly what he should, but that's his biggest problem. He has no individuality, so he becomes just like every other capable male voice in a symphonic metal band. And Astralium sadly follow suit.

If the whole album, all sixty plus minutes of it, was up to Whisper in the Silence and Rising Waves from the Ocean, this would be a gimme at 9/10. I'm almost disappointed that I have to only give it a 7/10. It's decent but I'm unable to get past the feeling that it should be much more.

Cyanide Paradise - Reach for the Stars (2019)

Country: The Netherlands
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Ironically, while I was listening to the female led melodic death metal band Frantic Amber at the end of last week, Linn Liv from the female led melodic death metal band Cyanide Paradise reached out with their debut EP, which I'm very happy to review too.

Linn is the singer for the band and, like Elizabeth Andrews of Frantic Amber (and insert your female melodic death metal singer of choice here), she has that recognisable something that I'm still trying to figure out is common to all female death growlers. Maybe it's a slightly higher pitch, even though it's still guttural. Anyway, she sounds good. The whole band sound good and its not difficult to like this EP.

Everyone does a solid job. The vocals contain a lot of energy and attitude. The guitar finds that balance between melody and power. The bass backs them up well. And the drums do everything they need to, even though there isn't a drummer. Since this EP was recorded, the band have added a second guitarist but I believe that they're still looking for someone to fill the seat behind the drumkit.

It should be too surprising that everyone does a solid job, because this is far from your average new band. Sure, they were formed this year, by Martin Vos and Jeff Wennekes, who play guitar and bass respectively, but they both previously did the same job for symphonic metal band Desolace Divine with the very same Linn Liv on vocals. They continued on after a rename to Veil of Delusions, with a different singer, and put out a full length album in 2016. Liv wasn't in the latter band but she does also sing for symphonic death metal band Pictura Poesis, alongside Wennekes on bass. They have two albums out, though I don't believe that Wennekes was with them at that time.

So, while Cyanide Paradise may be new, its band members know each other well and it's no surprise that they sound like they've been playing together for years. In many ways, they have and I'm sure that the point of this EP is to introduce the world to these old colleagues in a new project. If that wasn't the point, then this runs short at under twenty minutes, even if it is an EP.

Being short, I've been able to listen to this in entirety a lot of times and I've done that because I wanted to see if each of the songs would find their individuality over repeated listens. It's a very consistent album, which can be both a good and a bad thing. Here it's both. The consistency tells me how reliable the band are, but also that there's not as much variety as I'd like to hear.

There is some, but it's mostly variety that we have to find for ourselves. I think of Subatomic as the opening baseline for the band: a solid, dependable slab of melodeath. Enlightenment does more of the same, but it adds a worthy spoken section, still done by Liv in her harsh voice, but showing that she's able to show nuance with her voice better when she speaks guttural than when she sings it. Pestilence has a guitar that's more dynamic, almost cinematic; there's also a cool section with what sound like synth bells.

Best of all is the title track, because what I can only call a keyboard aura behind the regular instruments elevates what is already the best song on the album even further. I wonder if this was the last track written, because it feels deeper and more memorable. If this is the direction forward, I'd like to hear the band's debut album, especially if it's recorded as a solid five piece. Thanks for sharing, Linn, and best of luck to Cyanide Paradise!

Monday, 26 August 2019

Sacred Reich - Awakening (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

I wasn't living in Phoenix three decades ago when it was the next big thrash scene about to explode. I was six thousand miles away but I was listening to a lot of the bands that were tearing it up in what I probably thought at the time was just an endless desert. The name that most people remember today is probably Flotsam and Jetsam, especially after Jason Newsted elevated their name when he left to join Metallica, but they were far from alone. I bought Sacred Reich albums too and those of Atrophy, who were just down the road in Tucson.

If Flotsam and Jetsam were the most famous Arizona thrash band, I hear that Sacred Reich had the biggest and wildest mosh pits. I hope that's still the case 23 years after their previous album. And yeah, only 23 years. I bought Ignorance and the Surf Nicaragua EP back in the day but I don't think that I knew that they had knocked out a few albums in the nineties, before taking a break. I guess I wasn't paying attention, though I also see that they weren't entirely well received. It was a tough time.

They only went away for a little while, from 2000 to 2006, but they've only got round to a new album now, one that feels strong and punchy, as if they were just itching to make it. They've had a pretty consistent line-up over the years, though I do see one key recent change, namely that Jason Rainey, the only founding member to last until their debut album in 1987, has been on rhythm all the way through, but he left this year, to be replaced by Joey Radziwill. That seems like an important break. I wonder if it had anything to do with this album.

All the others who took part in the band's heyday in the late eighties were the second people in place. Phil Rind, the songwriter, vocalist and bassist, joined in 1985, replacing both Dan Kelly and Mike Andre. The lead guitarist, Wiley Arnett, showed up a year later to replace Jeff Martinek. After a year of Ray Nay on drums, Greg Hall took over and stayed for most of the band's life thus far. It's Dave McClain here, though, who took over from Hall for half of the nineties and did so again last year.

But what about the music? Well, the title track, which kicks things off, is a heavy, mid-paced song with a real punch. I don't remember Rind's voice as being this clear or this strong. He's quite obviously on top form here and the production aids him, as it does McClain's drumkit, which is relentless. Divide & Conquer is faster. It doesn't care about doing anything fancy; it just drops its head and blisters.

If Rind deserved the first overt compliment, the back end gets there too. It continues to deliver, song after song, so amazingly tight. That chugging at the outset of Manifest Reality is dream material for me. Then it kicks into high gear with Arnett's buzzsaw of a lead and I'm in heaven. Revolution's close as well. This is quintessential old school thrash, textbook stuff. Killing Machine also features the socially aware material we expect from Rind, anti-war material telling the stories of a succession of bright new soldiers, all of them inevitably "bodies for the killing machine". This album is far too long a time in coming but it delivers.

And there's variety here too. Death Valley is wildly different: alternative and even southern. Something to Believe starts out like a Judas Priest song but gets alternative in a very different way, almost like Priest covering a Creed song, if that remotely makes sense, with a notably heartfelt delivery from Rind and strong work on the bass too.

The flaw isn't in the music but in the fact that this is just a breath over half an hour in length and it feels short at only eight songs. Sure, this is authentic for the era it ably resurrects but I can't but feel greedy for the first album Sacred Reich have done in 23 years. I want more! Please, folks, let's see another album in 2020 or maybe 2021. We're glad you're back, even if you never really went away.

Eighteenth Hour - Eighteenth Hour (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website

I have a very deliberate focus here on rock and metal from around the world, but that doesn't mean that there aren't great bands coming out of the US as well. Eighteenth Hour are an energetic hard rock band from Bethlehem, PA who have been winning all sorts of local band awards. This is their debut album after a decade supporting bands like Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Greate White, even blues singer Shemeika Copeland.

There are certainly classic rock influences here. You don't need to wait for the slide on Unnoticed to realise that a lot of it comes from southern rock. I kept hearing moments of Rory Gallagher too but his vocals rather than his far more famous guitar. It's in the phrasing of singer Geoff Houser, who has a rock voice but one clearly sourced from the blues. Of course, there are a few songs where he sounds a lot more like Jon Bon Jovi, like Unnoticed.

However, this sounds a lot more contemporary to me, even if I'm not up on a lot of the new bands to tell you who they might sound like, if anybody. I'm hearing an alternative edge but not so strong as to push this away from the hard rock core of their sound. There's even a little prog at points, like a neat riff on Should've Been Gone, after a few bars of an intro that sounds a lot like the Scorpions.

I don't know quite how long it's been since Eighteenth Hour was founded but it's been a while and I'm sure they've racked up a lot of songs in that time from which to compile this debut album. It doesn't feel rushed. They clearly have enough material to populate this with strong songs and probably have a bunch left over for the follow-up.

And I'd suggest that the songs are what they're all about. There are a few solid solos here, courtesy of Houser and David Zullo, not least on Takes Me Back, perhaps my favourite song (though the consistency is strong enough to mean I have a new favourite each time through). They're backed up by a solid rhythm section of Jim Touchton and Tom Chaffier who keep things tight. Just listen to Should've Been Gone to hear them do that even though Jim's bass is doing something completely different to Tom's drums. At the end of the day, though, none of them are showing off here. They're each just playing their parts to make the songs work.

And they all do. Few of these scream to be, well, singled out for a single release, but every one of them could be a viable single. They're all catchy without being flashy, which means that they grow. Hear one on the radio and you might let it pass unacknowledged but it might also take root inside your head and, next time it comes on, you'll be paying attention to it. The more you listen, the better it gets. And that goes for all ten tracks, none of which are clones of any of the others.

Maybe the most accessible are the ones that pause the music at key points so that the vocals can get a little emphasis. They do this on the first couple of tracks and they do it very well. The album gets deeper from there. I wish I could give you an elevator pitch for this band, but I can still recommend them highly. I dug this a lot. It sounded good on a first listen and then it dug into my skin.

Friday, 23 August 2019

Frantic Amber - Bellatrix (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 23 Aug 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | YouTube

As I've mentioned here before, melodeath is the easiest genre to get lost in the crowd because it's easy to sound like everyone else. I treasure melodic death that stands out and that leads me to Frantic Amber, a Swedish band on their second album. I've enjoyed the pair of singles that preceded it and I was eager to check out the album once released.

They're another female led melodic death band, which I tend to enjoy. I've found that, once I got used to the idea of harsh female vocals almost two decades ago now, I started to recognise them when I heard them. There's an interesting component that I'm not sure I can describe. I wouldn't call it softness, but it's something that adds a melodic nature to the vocals to go above the melodic nature of the band behind them. Frankly, I prefer it now. Elizabeth Andrews is very good at what she does which makes her a welcome addition to the ranks of female led melodic death bands.

In fact, this band is eighty per cent female, I believe, but you can't tell that by listening to it! I like the sound too, because the vocals and drums don't overpower everything else and I can actually hear Madeleine Gullberg Husberg's bass. It's especially obvious in the midsection of Lagertha, but it's there throughout.

This is a concept album, very much like something Sabaton might do if they were women. Each of the eight tracks proper here are about warriors of note who just happened to be women. As Frantic Amber are very good at flavouring their songs with appropriate samples and ethnic instrumentation, we realise that these warriors are from all over the globe. This means that there are flutes on Lagertha; woodblocks on Joshitai; Jews harps, eastern strings and Mongol chants on Khutulun; and a host of other varied flavours that elevate the album.

As with the Sabaton album about the First World War, I highly recommend that you treat these songs as rabbit holes to discover some amazing stories. Just start with Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the Soviet sniper focus of The Ghost That Kills, and you won't be able to stop. She was known as Lady Death or simply "the Russian bitch from Hell", because she finished the Second World War at 309 confirmed kills of Nazi soldiers, which is insanely high, even before a pondering on how many more were unconfirmed.

This is melodic death rather than power metal, so it can't hold a candle to Sabaton on catchy choruses and earworm hooks, but this is a deeper, far more varied and more interesting album that outstrips Sabaton on textures. And I have to add that it's certainly not without solid riffs and hooks, whatever instrument they happen to be played on.

It's another of those albums that I was going to rate 7/10 until I realised just how many tracks I'd noted down as highlights. I enjoyed Lagertha a lot, Joshitai even more. The Ghost That Kills was my favourite until the pirate yarn Crimson Seas took over. That has everything: strong riffs, solid hooks and some great vocal phrasing, not to forget swords clashing in time behind the music. And The Black Knight wraps things up in style at a longer length, almost seven and a half minutes.

Given that there are only eight tracks proper (there's a short instrumental intro too), four of them are real highlights and the other four are hardly slackers, this clearly deserves an 8/10. Word on the street is that this is a step up from its predecessor, 2015's Burning Insight, but I'm now eager to check that out to see for myself.

Изморозь - Культ (2019)

Country: Russia
Style: Pagan Folk Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | VK

Here's one I missed earlier in the year. I've finally got round to finding a phone so I can sign up for the Russian social media network called VK. In a community dedicated to the Russian folk metal outfit Стожар, whose album, Холодом Битв В Объятья Зимы, I enjoyed back in June, I saw a Best of 2019 poll. Ten bands had albums listed and Стожар made it to second with 13% of the vote. Way out in front, though, with a whopping 62% of the vote were a band named Изморозь with this album.

I don't read Cyrillic, so I'm relying on Google Translate to help me out. I believe the band's name is Hoarfrost, they hail from Moscow where they began life as a side project of folk metal band Ashen Light and this, their ninth album, is called Cult. I just had to track it down and see whether Изморозь have a heck of a lot of friends willing to vote in the social media polls or whether this is really that great an album.

Well, I have to say that I enjoyed Стожар more, but I enjoyed this too and it's continuing to grow on me. In many ways Изморозь could be seen as a dark side to Стожар. Instead of light and lively keyboards and clean and melodic female vocals, they play their folk metal with a black metal influence and a subversive nature.

It's often catchy stuff that's hardly serious in nature, as we discover on the two minute blitz of an opening song. I don't read Cyrillic so Медведь, балалайка, водка! means nothing to me, but the chorus makes it clear that the final two words are "balalaika" and "vodka", which need no translation; the first turns out to be "bear". Listening to this song alone, I knew that I had to share it with my son, who's a Trollfest fan.

Even when the songs aren't that wild, they're short and punchy. The longest falls short of the five minute mark and a couple are under three. What sells the dark side for me are the vocals, which are delivered if by a lascivious bearded dwarf with plenty of mead in him, even though I see from photos that precisely none of those attributes are the case. I'd like Trollfest if they had different vocals; I like Изморозь in large part because of them.

I don't know if these memorable lead vocals are provided by Belf or Kiv, as there are two vocalists here; the former also handles the bass and keyboards while the latter plays the guitars. Behind them on drums is Gumanoid. All three are highly experienced, having played in long lists of bands and on many albums and that experience shows here.

While much of this is a heady mix of fast drums and folk melodies delivered by prominent keyboards presumably masquerading as a variety of instruments, with those lascivious vocals emphasising them, there's actually quite a lot going on here. Злой князь (The Evil Princ) begins like Rammstein as a folk metal band. Берега храбрых (The Shores of the Brave) has a Celtic mediaeval feel to it. Лавка смерти (Death Bench) features a lot of variation in speed and plenty of what sound like flutes and other ethnic instruments. It kicks off like speed metal with bagpipes and I'm all for that!

And there are bizarre moments that I can't imagine are deliberate but, hey, may just be. Most come courtesy of the keyboards. I couldn't help but hear the Inspector Gadget theme on Злой князь, even if it isn't a likely source. I also my favourite game soundtrack on the opener and I'd be truly shocked if this bunch of Muscovite black/ folk metalheads grew up playing Fuzzy's World of Miniature Space Golf too.

I liked this on a first listen and I like it more with each further time through It's Изморозь's ninth album and there are EPs in their discography too. I'll be exploring those for sure.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - Infest the Rats' Nest (2019)

Country: Australia
Style: Stoner Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 16 Aug 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I've heard a few albums from King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, having found them during the publicity boom for Polygondwanaland's ever-looping nature, and I've enjoyed them. I know they're no one trick pony but what I've found thus far has been pretty consistently psychedelic rock and this is clearly not that. There's psych here but this is a metal album.

Buzz suggested that it was going to be a thrash album, which made it a must for me, but it really isn't, even if there are some overt thrash touches. I heard a lot of Motörhead here, especially in the double bass drumming and in the guitar approach on songs like Mars for the Rich that emulates No Class. Even on faster numbers such as Planet B, they're as unlike a thrash band as they are the King Gizzard we know from earlier albums.

This is much heavier stuff than usual but the psych is still there and it's done in an notably alternative way. I heard plenty of Voivod too (not only in the use of science fiction) and heavier British punk like Discharge. I'm sure there are comparisons to make to nineties American metal as well that I'm unable to provide, as I didn't pay that much attention back then. A few tracks, especially Venusian 2, sound rather more like a Hawkwind album meant for 33rpm but played at 45rpm.

Stu Mackenzie, vocalist and guitarist, has said that his influences for the album came from the usual suspects of American and German thrash: Metallica, Slayer, Exodus and Overkill for the American side and Sodom and Kreator for the German. He also added Rammstein in there for good measure too. I have to say that I'm hearing very little of this, except in some odd phrasing here and there, the one exception being Self-Immolate, which has a slower Slayer vibe, including some frantic drumming from Michael Cavanagh to kick it off.

Maybe there's a little Sodom, as there's an overt punky edge to this metal. The guitars are fuzzy and often laden with feedback. The vocals are raw. I'd lean more towards Motörhead, the Plasmatics and some of the heavier stoner metal bands. In fact, some of it, such as Superbug, plays far too slow and monotonous for my tastes, taking the hypnotic tone of some psychedelic rock and applying it to a sort of Swans-esque drone mentality. I'm certainly not used to thrash albums being played too slowly, just as I'm not used to any thrash bands using feedback as a weapon like this.

The album's a creature of two sides, the first dealing with topical concerns about the environment and the second exploring Venus with rebels forced into leaving the Earth. Both angles seem angry and reactionary, which works for a angry and reactionary style like this. While there's plenty of punk in the sound here, it's punk in attitude and delivery too.

And that makes all for a surprisingly interesting approach for a band most of us know for psychedelic rock workouts. All power to King Gizzard for an interesting diversion into a new sound, but I have no doubt that, when I'm in the mood for them, I'll be pulling Polygondwanaland back out instead.