Friday, 15 November 2019

The Darkness - Easter is Cancelled (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Oct 2019
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I surprised myself shortly into this by realising that I've heard a lot less music by the Darkness than I thought, maybe just a few odd songs. After all, this is their sixth album; they aren't new. Maybe it's because they split up after only two albums and stayed gone for a while. I certainly haven't heard anything from their second go around until now. And I should. It isn't every band who can support Metallica and Lady Gaga on tour. Separately.

The band's current line up is the original line up, but with one difference: their original drummer, Ed Graham, who was on board for the reunion in 2011, left a few years later. Currently, his seat is occupied by Rufus Taylor, who is a strong enough drummer on his own merits that it feels unfair to mention that he also happens to be the son of Roger Taylor. However, the spectre of Queen, with whose current incarnation Rufus has also played for years, just can't be ignored.

Just listen to the opening track, Rock and Roll Deserves to Die, which is an an ambitious track that features a dynamic, genre-hopping range on the scale of classic Queen tracks like Bohemian Rhapsody and Innuendo. Frankly, it's hard to compare it to anyone else. The only real difference arrives with the surprise that it's over in five and a half minutes. Isn't there a rule that an epic song like this has to last for at least eight?

Even if you drop such a clear homage to Queen in the seventies, that trawls in so much of what they did during that decade, their influence is all over this album like a rash. Check out Deck Chair, an outrageously overblown and over-orchestrated ditty to, well, a deck chair. Nobody else except Queen has been able to get away with this sort of lunacy until now and the Darkness do it very well indeed. The lyrics to Heavy Metal Lover are way out there too.

What keeps them somewhat apart from Queen are the vocals of Justin Hawkins. While these songs are clearly constructed the way that Queen would, they're easily distinguished. Slap on the title track and you could be forgiven for hearing Tie Your Mother Down but, when Hawkins lets his voice loose, we're a mile away. Sure, he has a thoroughly impressive range, right up to a strong falsetto, and we learned on the opener that he knows exactly how to scream to great effect, but he doesn't sound at all like Freddie Mercury.

Beyond feeling like a band who write Queen songs that Queen never recorded, what I took away from Easter is Cancelled is that the band are enjoying the heck out of life at the moment. I don't think songs like Heavy Metal Lover or Choke on It could be created by any band who aren't having a blast. Does anyone really make love to Cannibal Corpse? Suggesting Obituary as a power ballad band is priceless. I'm impressed by how they snuck the word "luthier" into We are the Guitar Men. That may be a first, even though few bands could exist without them.

I liked this a lot, not just as an album of songs but as a mood improver. I can enjoy just how overblown the band get on Deck Chair or how evil they get on Heavy Metal Lover, even how insanely prog they get at the end of We are the Guitar Men, but all of these songs leave me smiling every time and that is a neat trick if you can master it. The Darkness apparently have.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Colorado (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Neil Young is a pivotal figure in rock music, having been a prolific part of it since forming his first band in junior high school in the early sixties. He's changed with the times but he always remains recognisable. The question I tend to ask when a new Neil Young album drops is whether it's relevant or not, because he has a strange habit of drifting out and back into relevance, notably becoming the godfather of grunge. Usually he's relevant or he isn't. This time he's kinda sorta, because this is a real mixed bag of an album.

There's little coherence across the album, these songs doing very different things in very different ways. For instance, it opens up with Think of Me, a pleasant enough three minutes spent with a lot of harmonica and an agreeably stripped down sound (this is the first Neil Young album with Crazy Horse for seven years). But then She Showed Me Love is a four minute song jammed for almost fourteen like this is a rehearsal of a garage band.

The goal, I think, is to hypnotise us into realising how we old white folks screwed up the Earth but the kids just may be able to fix it for us. I'm all for the message but the delivery is strange. Neil, in his traditional way of personifying abstract concepts, tells us that he saw Mother Nature and that "She showed me love". That's fine. The problem is that he repeats that over and over and over and over for a majority of the running time. I did find the often distorted guitar interplay interesting but not that interesting.

From those two utterly different tracks, we're given a real mixture of good, bad and indifferent in no readily apparent order. I wonder how long he spent on the track listing because there's no flow at all.

Let's look at the indifferent first. Olden Days is fair but the lyrics are a litany of expected rhymes that lessen the impact. Milky Way feels agreeably mellow, with the loose garage style guitar never threatening the mood. When we reach the end of the album, the last couple of songs seem fine while they play but they vanish into to the ether like magic tricks after we start the album again.

The bad seems to circulate around the environmental theme raised initially in She Showed Me Love. Eternity follows with a different approach, like it's an old hippie song. Even without context from Young's substantial career and even more substantial impact on rock music, the environmental material here sounds like an old hippie railing politely at the times. With Eternity, it's as if he's forgotten to even do that. Hey, listen to the train!

And that leaves the good, most obvious in Help Me Lose My Mind, where we can buy absolutely into that railing. It's an angry song, so much so that Young is too affected by his words that he hardly sings; he speaks and shouts and emotes. This is exactly the mood that Crazy Horse backs up so well. Young's often dissonant guitar finds real impact when he's hurling out his lyrics or just entreating us, "Won't someone help me lose my mind".

Based on the raw impact of that song, I'd have liked a lot more anger here. You're not wrong, Neil. We old white guys screwed up a heck of a lot but, it wasn't you and me, so maybe we should be angry about it on more than just a couple of songs. Help Me Lose My Mind is the one that really works. Shut It Down kinda works too. But nothing else here has any comparable anger level.

For example, the song in between them, Green is Blue, is the exact opposite of angry. It feels mellow, with some really nice tones in play. The lyrics continue the anger about environmental issues but, as if it was written and recorded while incredibly high, that anger is diffused into calm melancholy and elegaic acceptance. "There's so much we didn't do." It took me a while to get into it because it's so unlike its bookends, but it does its job.

And so this is a mixed bag. For three songs in the middle of the album, it's great stuff. Elsewhere there are just moments. What this album does most for me is tell me that, given the state of our times, Neil Young needs to record more with Crazy Horse. Channel that anger and scream at a lot more than just the environment. We old white guys screwed up a lot more than that.

Weapon UK - Ghosts of War (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
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I've been highlighting bands that crawled out of the woodwork in 2019 and I don't think Weapon UK quite count because they kind of started that trend a few years ago. They were formed as far back as 1980, under the name of Fast Relief, quickly became Weapon and then split up in 1982 after one single and one demo. They got back together in 1984 and promptly split up again. And so we fast forward to the 21st century. They tried and failed again in 2005 but got themselves properly organised at last in 2009, finally releasing a debut album in 2014, 34 years after it all began. They were the Rosy Vista of 2014 and this is their follow-up album.

Now, I haven't heard Rising from the Ashes, but I like this a lot. As befits their origins in the NWOBHM scene in England in 1980, this is very much old school NWOBHM stuff, full of hard rock riffs, vocal hooks and a little punk attitude, though it's fair to say that the latter is easily most obvious on the band's rework of Set the Stage Alight, the flipside of that 1980 single so not one of the many new songs here.

I was enjoying the nostalgic feel for half of the titular opening track and then they added a whole other level. Clare Cunningham, the Irish lead singer of Swedish rockers Thundermother, shows up for a fantastic folky section in the middle of the song (it returns for the reprise at the end of the album). As it all heats back up, she heats back up with it to finish it all out with a roar. This isn't just a good Weapon UK album, it should be an intro to her band too, because they deserve the attention.

Ghosts of War is a really good song that's stayed with me, but Queen of the Ride is the best one on offer. It's quintessential NWOBHM, combining melody and power with a seventies Gillan hard rock vocal over a faster and heavier backing ready for the new decade of the eighties. The whole point of what I do here at Apocalypse Later is to highlight all the great music coming out a decade or four after Weapon UK were formed but I can't help but wonder here what they could have done during that intervening span had they been able to stay together.

This album is utterly rooted in the NWOBHM era and, if you doubt that, just check out '79 Revisited, with nostalgic lyrics that cleverly riff on the old "Saturday night and I just got paid" line from Rip It Up. Massive respect to the band for ending with the Friday Rock Show ident which defined the era as much as the opening to Am I Evil.

However, winding the musical clock back forty years doesn't mean that every song here is the same. NWOBHM was a movement but Diamond Head weren't Saxon, who weren't Iron Maiden, who weren't Angel Witch, and so on. Weapon UK find a lot of different sounds on this album without losing authenticity. Sea of Hope adds eastern flavour at a reduced tempo; it's slower but heavier than anything else here. All I Need has a stalking bluesy vibe. Tourniquet has a real growth to it. Queen of the Ride just gallops along. Emerald God starts out like a Status Quo song before adding power.

This isn't a new Lightning to the Nations or Killers for 2019 but it's good stuff throughout and great stuff on occasion. It's certainly a better album that Angel Witch or Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper have managed lately and I'm looking forward to a third album.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Monolord - No Comfort (2019)

Country: Sweden
Style: Stoner Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter

I've heard a lot about Monolord, some of it high praise and some of it jokey dismissal, but this, their fourth studio album in six years, is my first and I'm only now hearing what they do.

What they do is big fat frickin' huge riffs. Sure, they describe their sound as "enveloping, syrupy sludge" but it's hard to imagine the scale of riffage going on. Critics like me often get overly enthusiastic about our favourite bands and wax lyrical in ways that frankly overhype their effect. This band are insanely heavy with the guitar much higher in the mix than the vocalist so that things feel even heavier. Monolord state that ultra-low frequencies serve as their fourth member.

From the very outset on The Bastard Son, Thomas Jäger builds ocean waves out of his riffs that thunder onto our unwary shoreline with his voice a distant surfer hidden somewhere behind the spray. Mika Häkki's bass plays along and underlines and emphasises that heaviness to massive degrees. Is this a band or a tsunami? Esben Willems is the drummer behind this duo and he does his job well, playing as few beats as possible but enough to keep this behemoth in motion.

Beyond being agreeably shocked at just how heavy The Bastard Son got, I was a little disappointed with the song itself. Monolord were crushing me with a ridiculous amount of weight in their sound but I wasn't sure where they were going with it. They nail the melodic aspect of this sort of doom later but I didn't hear it for a while. However, the simplicity of the riffs and, frankly their monotony, is shaken halfway through when the band start to mix it up. They get slow (well, slower), a lot quieter and much more intricate, without losing that weight.

Suddenly I was on board and I repeated that experience with The Last Leaf, a song that disappointed me until it got really interesting. It took a while, even on a shorter five minute song. I should point out that this album runs a smidgeon over three quarters of an hour, but that only means six tracks. The shortest is a heartbeat away from five minutes while two songs run over nine minutes and one almost eleven.

What really sold me on the band was Larvae, the third track. Like everything here, it's Black Sabbath influenced but this time it really acknowledges the sheer breadth of what they did back in the early days. It's Ozzy-era Sabbath at its folkiest but with the riffs still fuzzed up to eleven, if not twelve. It's never just sheer bludgeoning, it runs the gamut of dynamics in a real song structure. I loved it and I enjoyed Skywards a lot for similar reasons.

By this point I'd become a confirmed fan and I stayed that way through Alone Together, a kind of heavy ballad with Jäger's vocals appearing to float into the studio from another room. And that leaves the eleven minute title track, which is a delightfully heavy romp that feels achingly unrushed. There's a point just over the halfway mark where it drops into delicate noodling only for Häkki's bass to show up with an insane power chord and crush the world for effect. I absolutely adored that contrast.

I liked this, especially once it added melody to the crushing doom, and I'm now certainly going to be checking out Monolord's prior three albums. I hear a lot of good things about 2017's Rust and that's next on my agenda.

Wednesday 13 - Necrophaze (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Horror Punk/Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
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I've bumped into Wednesday 13 a few times at various Mad Monster Parties but hadn't realised quite what he did, beyond sing and play in a band that had a strong tie to the horror genre, the Murderdolls. Well, there are other bands too, gloriously named ones like Bourbon Crow, Maniac Spider Trash and, above all, the Frankenstein Drag Queens from Planet 13. There's also a lot of solo material, this being his eighth studio album, I believe.

Somehow I'd lumped him into the horror punk genre, which this really isn't, even if it gets mentioned a lot online. Horror doesn't equal horror punk and I didn't hear the Misfits anywhere in this material, except for maybe Bury the Hatchet, which is like Guns n' Roses covering them. Much of this album has an Alice Cooper feel to it, as if his backing band from the mid to late eighties got pushed forward through a time portal, decided that they adored the work of Rob Zombie and hired Wednesday 13 to be their new singer.

As if to back that up from the outset, the title track kicks off the album with the immediately recognisable voice of the man himself, over a simple but effective John Carpenter-esque synth line, though Alice is only here to provide narration, welcoming us to whatever the Necrophaze is. It's on the other side of the mouth of madness. Oddly, Wednesday 13 sounds a lot more like a chanting Rob Halford on this song, before moving firmly into Alice territory for the next few, including the obvious single, Bring Your Own Blood.

This is a heck of a lot of fun, just like the cheesy eighties horror movie that the cover art suggests, complete with some idiotic college kids in the dramatised bookends. The synths are high and the guitars low, just like the era would have expected. On seeing me post the cover to the new DragonForce album, Jim McLennan of Trash City fame quipped, "I'd watch that movie." I'm in no doubt that he'll say the same when I post this cover and, without any doubt, that movie would be what we get in Bring Your Own Blood. Don't forget pizza and beer. Oh, and your own blood.

Alice Cooper isn't the only influence here. Decompose and The Hearse feel a lot less theatrical in composition, even with eerie synths soaring over the latter, and fit more a heavy metal band who just like watching horror. The Hearse especially feels like something King Diamond might do, merely sans a falsetto voice. It's a deeper song than many here and it's a good one.

The Hearse also features a spoken word intro from Jeff Clayton of punk bands like ANTiSEEN and Murder Junkies. In addition to him and Alice Cooper, there are a couple of other guest appearances. Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil is the voice above and behind Wednesday 13 on Monster, rather than as the guest lead, and Alexi Laiho of Children of Bodom helps out on a cover of the most notorious W.A.S.P. single, Animal (Fuck Like a Beast). I presume this is a bonus song because it appears after Necrophaze Main Theme (End-Credits). Maybe it's the radio kicking in after this album finishes at the drive-in and we head home.

Talking of W.A.S.P., Wednesday 13 does shift over a little at points from an Alice Cooper sneer to a Blackie Lawless growl. I heard that most on Tie Me a Noose. There's even some Axl Rose on Life Will Kill Us All, as if he's only Alice with a filter applied. This is like Guns n' Roses, even down to a sort of Slash lite guitar solo, and it makes me wonder how many styles Wednesday 13 plays in. I need to go back to some of those earlier albums just to see how much of a natural mimic he is. "Grotesque by request," the intro states, as if the Necrophaze is a futuristic jukebox where our dime picks the style and he delivers a new song in it.

I liked this and I'm going to need to find out what my eldest son, the Alice Cooper nut, thinks about it. I have a feeling this ought to be right up his alley. It's certainly a lot more up mine than I thought it would be. It's a great album for horror fans, with its narrations, dramatisations and samples about the Zodiac killer, but it's a pretty damn good album if you're just a metal fan and don't care about the horror genre.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Mayhem - Daemon (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Black Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 Nov 2019
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For being one of the most influential bands in extreme metal, Mayhem are far from the most prolific, this being only their sixth studio album since they formed way back in 1984. Their debut, 1994's De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, is a pivotal black metal classic and I remember them from before that. I wish I'd bought a copy of their Deathcrush EP when Tommy Vance played the title track on the Friday Rock Show back in 1987. I hate to think what that's worth now.

One of the benefits of only knocking out an album every five or six years is that it allows for easy reinvention with less likelihood of pushback from a rabid fanbase. This is Mayhem trying something different yet again, even as they combine the dynamic play of more recent releases like Esoteric Warfare with formative approaches taken back on that debut album, which they've been playing live in entirety for a few years now.

What's new here is how impressionistic this all is and I'm not just talking about the lyrics which make zero specific sense in isolation but combine to create a broader impression than any one song can provide. In this instance, we're talking about Hell, which we're presumably looking at from a different point of view, that of the daemon of the title and the gorgeous cover art by Daniele Valeriani.

The classical style of that cover art seems important to me because this is less of an album to me, a collection of songs, and more a performance piece, like an opera. I found it hard to just listen to the music, because I saw it too, unfolding on a carefully furnished stage in an ornate European theatre. It's in the music but especially in an array of otherworldly sounds that are conjured up within it and the versatile vocal performance of Attila Csihar.

I adored what Csihar did here. There are points where he provides the usual black metal shrieks, but he stalks that stage with a commanding presence, as he orders and explains, reacts and sneers, suggests and gloats. I also felt that he wasn't just playing one part, but all of them. He's the torturer and the tortured both, plus the daemon responsible for what both of them do. The effect sometimes conjures up opera singers, Orthodox liturgy or even ritual sacrifice. It's a heady mix and it's the primary reason this performance art is so effective.

While the most obvious comparisons on a Mayhem album are to previous Mayhem albums, it's worth bringing up Celtic Frost once again here. When the early Mayhem wandered around the extremes to trawl in outrageous sounds, the most obvious source for what would become Mayhem was probably Bathory, hence the classification of black metal, but they took a lot from Venom and, arguably more than ever on this album, a heck of a lot from Celtic Frost.

This dark ambient emulation of fires and stakes and pain all came from them and it's rarely been done better because it's not here just in one track of sound effects, it's here in hints and impressions buried to the exact right degree in many of the songs. Was that a guitar or a scream? Was that a drum roll or the kindling underneath another personal inferno? Was that an aside from Csihar or the response to the arrival of a fresh soul to torment?

It takes a while for any Mayhem album to fully soak into our souls, but I'm half a dozen listens into this one and I'm feeling the flames of damnation flickering at my toes. It's in the stubbornly slow bass in The Dying False King and the grandeur of the summoning drums in Invoke the Oath. It's in the ritual elements of Daemon Spawn and the tolling mantra of Everlasting Dying Flame.

This is hardly music for every rock fan, but those who have been waiting for it since Esoteric Warfare in 2014 will be in heaven now that it's here. OK, maybe not literally; what an unfortunate choice of words that was! Suffice to say that this is already my favourite Mayhem album and they set the bar pretty high when they started out.

Trust - Fils de lutte (2019)

Country: France
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Wikipedia | YouTube

Legendary French rockers Trust were originally formed back in 1977 and lead vocalist Bernie Bonvoisin and lead guitarist Nono Krief have remained as the core of the line-up through four incarnations of the band. Fils de Lutte, or Son of Struggle, is their twelfth studio album, and it arrives only a single year after Dans le même, suggesting that they're enjoying themselves and we may see more in the years to come.

If the name doesn't ring a bell, it's probably because you're not French, as they are huge in their home country. They're probably best known in the west for featuring not one but two Iron Maiden drummers over the years, with both Clive Burr and Nicko McBrain playing with them in the eighties; and because Anthrax have memorably covered two of their songs, including their biggest, Antisocial, bringing it to a whole new audience.

Over the years, the band with whom they've been most frequently compared are AC/DC and that's still appropriate. There's plenty of AC/DC to be found in the opening track, Portez vos croix, or Wear Your Cross, though it alternates into older school rock 'n' roll, going all the way back to that original Chuck Berry sound. It shows up in Ce n'est pas la Corée du Nord too (It's Not North Korea) and in Tendances (Trends), which has a fantastic slow riff.

Bonvoisin is sounding less and less like Bon Scott with age though. There's still a wink in his voice, most obviously on the highly cheeky Miss univers, but he's more like Bob Seger nowadays, especially on a song like Y'a pas le feu mais faut brûler, which translates to the intriguing There's No Fire But You Must Burn.

There are other influences apparent in Trust's sound, though they've been an influential band for long enough that it's easiliy fair to say that they've influenced even more other bands than they've drawn from themselves. There's lots of Thin Lizzy in C'n'est pas d'ma faute, or It's Not My Fault, and some Golden Earring in the bass-driven Les soleil brille pour tous, which I think translates to The Sun Shines on Us All.

By the way, the bass there is not the work of Izo Diop, bassist for sixteen years, because he switched over to guitar in 2016 when David Jacob rejoined the band. Between them, they've handled bass duties since 1996 and now they function as a dual guitar band.

Les soleil brille pour tous also features a fantastic use of female backing vocals, as do quite a few songs here. I don't know who the singers are who are responsible for that, but it sounds great and it adds a soulful feel to songs that are based more in the blues. They elevate On va prendre cher, a mysterious track because I cannot translate it; J'ai cessé de compter, which means I Stopped Counting; and Y'a pas le feu mais faut brûler, among others.

Trust are known for providing good value with their albums, this one being the shortest this millennium even though it features a dozen tracks in well over fifty minutes. What's notable is that there's no filler here, each of the tracks doing its job, though nothing leaps out as an obvious single. It plays out like albums used to do, showcasing different angles to the band's sound across a variety of quality songs.

The biggest complaint I can have is with the track listing. Every one of my favourite songs is on the second half of the album, as if they turned it up a notch when I flipped it over. Also, while it wraps up with a decent song, Delenda, it doesn't feel like an ending. But hey, when the track listing is the worst thing to say about an album, you know it has to be worth listening to. I look forward to lucky album number thirteen in 2020!

Monday, 11 November 2019

DragonForce - Extreme Power Metal (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | VK | Wikipedia | YouTube

DragonForce are back with their eighth studio album and I have to say that I was wary going into this one. With an album title like that and outrageously cheesy cover art that makes it look like a Japanese laserdisc from the late eighties, they're obviously not fighting the fact that they're becoming an unfortunate cliché through a surprising shift into fame.

They've been around since 2001, a couple of years more if we count the early ones as DragonHeart, but they're now more famous than any of their peers. In many ways, they're struggling to remain an actual band nowadays rather than just the ultimate insane Guitar Hero level and, if that's what the world is going to care about most, then why not play into it? Yeah, I was wary.

Sure enough, it starts horribly. The opening track, Highway to Oblivion, is so close to what we're expecting that it almost feels like self parody. The twin guitar attack of Herman Li and Sam Totman is as virtuosic as we expect but are all the technical theatrics they're performing helping the song? No is the quick answer and it stays no for half of it, I think. What surprised me is that, when vocalist Mark Hudson put down his mike to give way to the inevitable guitar duel, it stopped being cheesy for me and I started to dig the song.

My next surprise was that the second track plays better, even though it has the frankly ridiculous name of Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine. I have no idea how Highway to Oblivion is cheesy but a song like this finds a way to avoid that, playing like an early Gamma Ray gem. The keyboard section could be lifted for a retro video game and the theatrical part before it has potential as a sci-fi musical movie trailer. However, there's also restraint here. They could have played this at twice the speed but they chose not to. Maybe they're not planning on being self-parody after all.

So, while DragonForce initially try to be the Steel Panther of power metal, they turn back into an actual band again and I stopped cringing and started enjoying. Yeah, it's still outrageous and overblown but there's a line there and DragonForce moved back onto the right side of it pretty quickly and they stayed there for most of the rest of the album. It still blows my mind that a song called Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine can be on the right side of that line, but hey.

If the shred machine referenced is the Li and Totman double act, then it's a consistent one this time out. I dug the guitar duels on a slew of songs like Heart Demolition, Troopers of the Stars and Razorblade Meltdown. I think the middle of those three epitomises their unique approach of playing guitars in such a way that they sound like chiptune programs. If you're into this sort of thing, they do it better than anyone and they do it a lot.

My last surprise was that that temporary restraint continues. Not everything here is done at hyperspeed and the very clean production job brings details like the acoustic koto on The Last Dragonborn to be front and centre. Sure, these lyrics are cheesy but no more so than anything that Ronnie James Dio sang on half a century's worth of classics. Hudson delivers them well.

The Last Dragonborn is really a melodic rock song that just happens to have insanely fast guitars, just as Strangers is really an arena rock song given the DragonForce treatment. If most of the songs here continue to remind of early Gamma Ray, there are other influences and they're not all power metal. Maybe that's why Extreme Power Metal ends with, of all things, a cover of Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On. No, I'm not kidding. It's completely unnecessary and it adds nothing to the album whatsoever.

Until then, however, this is strong stuff. As if to highlight that it's not all about those duelling guitars, there's even a hyperspeed bass run from, I presume, Frédéric Leclercq before he left the band earlier this year, on the excellent Troopers of the Stars. There are nice tinkling ivories to kick off Razorblade Meltdown and bagpipes to start Remembrance Day, timely given when I'm posting.

Don't turn this off if Highway to Oblivion, the first single, is too wildly ridiculous for you. Stay with it and it really impresses in a way that's as quintessentially European as Hellyeah are quintessentially American.

Hellyeah - Welcome Home (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Groove Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've read that Vinnie Paul recorded the drum tracks for the sixth Hellyeah album before he passed. However, he died in June 2018 and the band weren't supposed to start recording until November, so I'm not too sure about that. Frankly, it doesn't matter. Whoever's behind the kit here does the job well enough that we hardly notice because we're caught up in the songs that rely on these beats. Paul's live replacement is Roy Mayorga, from Stone Sour and Soulfly, though he hasn't been listed as an official member that I can see.

Let's assume that everything here is Vinnie Paul and that makes it a solid exit to remember him by. Certainly, the last track, a sort of hidden track that isn't hidden, is an opportunity for him to leave us with a final word. "Don't ever think it's not a good time," he tells us, because "a wonderful time is irreplaceable." Thanks, Vinnie.

Hellyeah are a band that I can enjoy, even though they're a lot closer to nu metal than I like. They bring in a lot more influences than most such bands: hard rock, heavy metal, southern rock, grunge, even country and end up with a rather energetic groove metal sound. Just listening to this album in my office was enough for me to picture the crowd at a Hellyeah gig in motion right behind me. "Welcome to the slamboree!" indeed.

They start out strong with a couple of punchy but catchy songs that could be obvious singles. 333 was the first of five released thus far with Oh My God the third, even with a slower grind. Black Flag Army is straight up groove metal with a prowling bass, punchy riffs and shouty vocals. It's effortless and exactly what Hellyeah do best so it's almost impossible not to respond to its call. Boy, however, is close enough to nu metal to cross the line for me. It has plenty of bounce and power, along with tongue tripping lyrics, but it isn't my thing, even after Black Flag Army threatened to convert me.

However, there's more variety here. The title track adds orchestration and a more unusual melodic line for Hellyeah. It's an odd mixture of Radiohead and Metallica and it's pretty cool. This mashup style comes back on Bury You too and, frankly, it's more interesting to me than the regular stuff even though I'm usually wary of overproducing bands who thrive on their raw edge.

The band's grungier angle is more overt later in the album. At Wick's End is built on a solid riff reminiscent of Powerman 5000 but it gets far grungier, delivered with a real sneer. Somehow this song also reminded me of Testament and Saigon Kick at their grungiest, say One Step Closer. I never expected to hear both of those in a single song, especially alongside Powerman. Perfect kicks off with an incredibly dirty guitar but instead of continuing into the swamp rock we might expect, it becomes a loud pop song with the best lyrics on the album: "You're as perfect as an apple with a worm and a bruise."

The biggest departure from the band's regular sound is Sky and Water, which is like a grungy Blind Melon playing country. There's so much grit in Chad Gray's voice on this song that we can't help wondering if the band put him (and maybe everything else too) through a filter. He sounds gritty anyway, of course, but that's ramped up to eleven on this one.

It's an odd song to end the album because it takes us away from the bounce. Sure, Sky and Water couldn't have been put anywhere else on the track list without creating even more upheaval but it does that even here at the end. While this isn't my go to music, I enjoyed the album and would have enjoyed it more had I left it on the bounce a track earlier.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Alcest - Spiritual Instinct (2019)

Country: France
Style: Blackgaze
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 25 Oct 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

I haven't listened to enough Alcest but I've liked what I've heard thus far and I like what I hear on this, their sixth album, too. They started out as a black metal band but then they veered into shoegaze territory, an unusual choice but one which seemed to be a natural evolution for them. In between and after, they've merged the two genres to effectively define blackgaze. I say "they" because they are a band nowadays, a gentleman named Winterhalter handling the drums and percussion, but for most of their history they were one man, who goes by the name of Neige, and he does everything else.

This certainly fits well in the blackgaze genre, with half of the album full of blastbeats and dissonance and the other slow and ethereal like the post-punk era that influenced shoegaze. Michael Nelson of Stereogum described Le Secret, Alcest's pioneering 2005 EP, as being "like a Cocteau Twins/Burzum collaborative split". This plays pretty close to that description, although the alternation of those styles has gradually become a true merger of them, so that the Cocteau Twins parts and the Burzum parts can and often do play out at the same time.

For instance, the guitars that follow the killer bass in opener Les jardins de minuit are both somehow both harsh and melodic at the same time, and the sweet voice that soars over it all adds more melody. Even when it ramps up into hyperspeed, it never loses that melody, so that songs feel rather like welcoming danger, like a tray of cookies laced with cyanide brought to you by your new neighbour.

The other tracks follow suit. L'ile des morts kicks off with a pulsing synth beat and harsh guitars at speed. There are points where the speed takes over but the melody is still there in the vocals. I should add that those vocals are clean here almost exclusively. While the blastbeats and harsh guitars of black metal are frequent, there are precious few shrieks. Protection may be the only track that really goes there with a couple of moments behind clean vocals on Sapphire.

My favourite here is surely Le miroir, which does all this with emphasis. It starts out with a glorious drum build, then shifts into delicate intricacy, not unlike a Wishbone Ash track. It almost turns into a melodic Iron Maiden instrumental section, but slowed down for effect and staged theatrically. A wall of darkness, hovering from those initial drums, rises up behind it as it develops, but a soft voice floats over too. What results is less a song and more a sort of sonic sculpture in the vein of Shriekback or the Cocteau Twins, hurled out there as a gift to the gods of the dark. Even the patient but decidedly vicious single cymbal clashes are delightful.

That's a fair description of the rest of the album too. The biggest problem for me was how it was a delight to listen to but a bear to try to focus on. I had this playing for three or four days so it's become an old friend, but even now it mostly plays like a forty minute piece of music rather than the six individual tracks that make up that running time.

It's especially hard to focus on the longest song, L'île des morts, which is a nine minute textbook on dynamics. None of these songs are short, Sapphire the shortest at five minutes even, but they're the usual sort of length for an Alcest album. Looking back, I only see one track, Délivrance on the 2014 album Shelter, that exceeds ten minutes and that only by six seconds. I left this wondering what an actual forty minute Alcest track might sound like.

I doubt it would sound too much different to this, though with a little more control in the structuring of its dynamics. And that's not a bad thing. This is wonderfully evocative stuff, whether we see it as a single album or a set of half a dozen tracks, and it tells me that I need to go back and pay a lot more attention to those previous five albums and some of the other material that peppers Neige's back catalogue.

Steve Grimmett's Grim Reaper - At the Gates (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 11 Oct 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube |

I remember Grim Reaper without remembering Grim Reaper. They were around at the point I discovered rock and metal, though I don't recall them ever being played on the Friday Rock Show. Their second album, Fear No Evil, was one of the first albums I bought, I believe, the memorable hand-drawn cover art as unapologetically metal as it gets with its grim reaper, in flowing red robe and with a scythe strapped perhaps unwisely to its back bursting through a stained glass window on a motorbike.

What I don't recall are the songs, even after going back to that album in a quest to spark my memory. I remember vocalist and the band's current leader, Steve Grimmett, more from other bands. He was on the underrated Chateaux LP Chained and Desperate, joined Onslaught for their third album and formed the excellent band Lionsheart in the early nineties.

For a while, this album made me wonder if I just wasn't paying due attention back then, because it's top notch metal in the British style of the eighties that I remember growing out of NWOBHM, with a heavy but melodic approach. The drums pound, the guitars take flight and the vocals soar, but everything is done with hooks firmly in mind. It's fast stuff but it's not speed metal. It's technical but it's not complex. It's catchy but, outside Iron Maiden, it's not what made it into the charts.

Then I started to realise the fatal flaw. After a few listens through to get the general impact, I realised that every song is solid but none of them are able to stand out for special attention. Taken in isolation, every song here is decent, worthy of our attention on its own merits, and each of them does its job in a slightly different way. However, put together, none of them is particularly memorable and neither is the album as a whole.

Part of that may be because the best of the songs are at the very beginning: the title track and Venom, tracks one and two. The former has the best riff and the latter the best hook, or maybe that should be the other way round. Either way, they would both be solid singles. From there onwards, I enjoyed every song and never felt that the quality dropped off, but I still didn't leave the album with the feeling that I'd just heard something amazing.

I thought about how we're used to much heavier material nowadays; this isn't remotely extreme. We're used to a lot more complex music; this is content to do without frills. There's nothing original or groundbreaking; if it wasn't for the excellent modern production, this could easily have been written in 1986. All four musicians are clearly capable and it's good to see that Steve Grimmett's voice hasn't lost any power at all over a decade or three, but I can't call anyone out for special mention. The problem is that every point I just made suggests that this is run of the mill and it isn't.

What it is, I think, is outstandingly generic. I must have seen every one of these song titles on a dozen other albums and the lyrics are also likely to be similar every time out too. Under the Hammer is decent but it's also just another song called Under the Hammer that does pretty much what every other song called Under the Hammer does. What is there in this one that might make me remember it? Nothing.

I liked Breakneck Speed, except for the fact that it's not delivered close to breakneck speed and I'm more likely to remember a song with that title if it's recorded by an actual speed metal band. What's Line Them Up about? Or Rush? What Lies Beneath? I really can't remember and I've been listening to them for a few hours now.

And that's why my eventual feeling here is disappointment. There isn't a bad song on this album, but I doubt that there's one that I'm going to remember in a couple of weeks. Listening to it, I'm thinking 7/10 at least because I'm having a ball with it but, if I wait an hour and think again, it can't be anything but 6/10 because I can't remember anything. Maybe that's why those eighties albums haven't stayed with me either.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Jeff Lynne's ELO - From Out of Nowhere (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Jeff Lynne is another classic name whose new album seems to have come, well, from out of nowhere, given that I thought he was happy as a mega-producer to the legends, but apparently he reformed the Electric Light Orchestra back in 2014 under the name of Jeff Lynne's ELO and this is the second album to see a release under that name, after 2015's Alone in the Universe.

If you're into Lynne's style of pop/rock, this is an essential album. There simply isn't a single bad song here, each of the ten on offer being a three minute and change crafted masterpiece with a hook that most musicians would kill for. It's the closest thing I've heard to the Beatles since, well, the Beatles and, even with long term collaborator Richard Tandy on board again, it's pretty much a one man band nowadays.

Lynne wrote all the music, of course, and that's his voice on all the songs, often harmonising with himself. He played almost every instrument: not just the guitar, bass and drums but piano, cello and even vibraphone. He handled the production. He probably even put the coffee on when needed. Tandy did a piano solo on One More Time and engineer Steve Jay added some percussion at points, which may mean that he shook a couple of tambourines. And that's the extent of outside involvement, I think.

Clearly the man is a genius, but the real question is whether this is going to stand up to posterity as there are two obvious catches.

One is that this sounds safe, something that I'm starting to resent as I get old. With every year that passes, I find myself empathising more with the Dude from The Big Lebowski: "I hate the fuckin' Eagles, man." It's not that they don't do their jobs supremely well. It's just that I know they can add an edge but they refuse to do it because it'll hurt the bottom line.

The other is that the album's sound is so inevitably consistent. While it's clearly in the style of the Beatles, it's very safe Beatles, with maybe an extra pinch of safe Eric Clapton on songs like All My Love. Listen to this through, then follow up with Sgt. Pepper and Disraeli Gears and recall what those musicians did when they didn't have self-imposed boundaries.

Even when the source style isn't outright Beatles-influenced pop, such as the funk of All My Love, the soul of Goin' Out on Me and the rock 'n' roll of One More Time, the end result still sounds like John Lennon singing for the Beatles in the seventies. That's odd, of course, given that Lennon was from Liverpool and Lynne hails from Birmingham, but it's there nonetheless.

All that said, the last time I felt like this about an album was Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, which sounded like a safe take on what Petty had previously done, mostly because of the writing and production of one Jeff Lynne, but it went on to become a bona fide classic and, as much as it gets overplayed on my local classic rock station, I'm not tired of it yet the way I am of Take It to the Limit Eighty-Four More Times.

This album seems strong enough for a similar end result and I don't know why I'm surprised. Lynne will turn 72 years old next month and he's apparently rediscovered his love for writing and performing. He's rich enough to never set foot in a studio again, let alone on a stage, but he clearly felt driven to write another ELO album and do it this damn well. All power to him.

November's Doom - Nephilim Grove (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Progressive Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

I've heard November's Doom before but somehow they never clicked with me. I have no idea why. Maybe I wasn't listening to the right albums. Maybe I was too invested in the English doom/death sound that was growing up around me in Halifax from local bands like Paradise Lost, Anathema and My Dying Bride. Maybe I just wasn't ready. Whatever the reason, they never engaged with me.

This album did from the outset. Opening track Petrichor rolls along with an inexorability to it, as if nothing in the world could slow it down except a pause or break decreed by the metal gods. There's a point in the second half that sounds like it came out of Sad Wings of Destiny and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, but as a breakdown from a drumming blitzkrieg that could never have happened back in the seventies.

Interestingly, the vocals are slow and harmonising, even when the drums are at their most blistering. It's almost like there are a couple of different bands playing at the same time and at completely different tempos but oddly remaining in sync throughout. Those vocals are clean, by the way, and eager to elongate and hold notes, though harsh vocals show up on other tracks.

I see that drummer Garry Naples is the new fish in the band, having joined as recently as 2011, so I wonder if he changed their sound (research states that may have been more Vito Marchese's doing, after he joined in 2003). I don't recall them being remotely this fast, even when they got going. If he did, good on him because the contrast between slow vocals and fast drums is an enticing one. I know what fast death and slow doom/death sound like and this is not really either but somehow both.

It's also progressive and comfortable with that. There's Opeth here but the list doesn't end there. There's also Voivod and Tool and Budgie and a whole bunch of wildly different bands. The title track is a great example of that variety, with a slow quiet build ending up firmly in death metal territory but with Sisters of Mercy vocals and Uriah Heep organ.

There's always been a gothic element to doom/death (hey, my favourite genre album is Paradise Lost's Gothic) but it feels a lot more obvious here than I remember for November's Doom. If songs like What We Become or The Clearing Blind had their elements of death metal removed, as indeed they are on the Matte Variant bonus tracks on the limited edition, they ought to be right up the alley of traditional goths. It's certainly much closer to the sound of My Dying Bride than any era of Paradise Lost, perhaps because they were always the more prog of the doom/death bands that I grew up with.

Given what works here, I can easily see them going more and more into a My Dying Bride direction, because the clean vocals work so much better than the harsh ones. The latter are done well, but they're unable to raise the level of melancholia on a song that the clean vocals do effortlessly. It doesn't feel like they're complementing each other most of the time, though they do that at points, such as on Black Light. Most of the time they're battling as to what a song should be and the clean vocals win those battles every time.

I liked this. I liked how comfortable November's Doom felt doing this, as if they've evolved their sound to the point where things just feel right. These nine songs all do different things but in a similar way, mixing death not so much with doom but with goth and prog. Each runs for a reasonably consistent length, from just under five minutes to just under seven. That gives them a decent amount of time to mix up their formula and do new things.

This will prompt me to go backwards and see if maybe I'll enjoy earlier work by November's Doom, but it certainly prompts me to want to hear whatever the next album will sound like.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Babymetal - Metal Galaxy (2019)

Country: Japan
Style: Kawaii Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 8 Oct 2019
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It's rare that when a band conjures its genre out of thin air, it's actually more accurate that anything else we can come up with. Case in point: Japan's imaginative export du jour, Babymetal, who call themselves "kawaii metal". I honestly can't come up with anything better, especially on this, their third album, because it's all over the musical map.

At heart, as you probably know by now, it's heavy metal meets Jpop, a weird combination but at times a very good one. However, this album aims to mimic their journey bringing kawaii metal to all corners of the earth by bringing local music into their own, so it's often a sort of folk metal, as indeed a favourite song like their debut single, Megitsune, kind of was. When this is successful, it's fascinating. When it isn't, on the other hand, it's pretty awful and that's why I have to give it only a 6/10 rating.

It's hard to come up with any defining logic around which songs succeed and which don't, except that the worst heavily feature autotune and the best are the most international in flavour. I wouldn't have expected Pa Pa Ya!! to be one of my favourites, given that it features Thai rapper F. Hero, but it's a wonderful song. Once again, it's unlikely genres merging in a way that works but I can't explain why.

Shanti Shanti Shanti is easily my choice for the best song on the album. It delves into Indian music enough that it sounds like it began as a Bollywood song, but it leaps into both metal crunch and pop cuteness, mixing all three elements well. The middle features traditional Japanese melodies over Indian drums. I'd absolutely watch the Bollywood movie this came from.

Oh! Majinai does the same with what sounds like half Russian and half Celtic music. The guest vocalist is Joakim Brodén, the voice of Swedish power metal band Sabaton and he drives much of the song. It could be more than it is but it's still a lot of fun, much of it in the vocal shenanigans.

These two remind that, for all the power the musicians generate behind them, Babymetal are a vocal band. Many of the songs here are pop songs with added crunch. Da Da Dance is a rave with guitars, like a kawaii Rob Zombie. Rarely do the songs seem to start out as metal but add pop vocals. Elevator Girl is certainly one and it works a little better for it. At points, the guitars seem to make the singers go faster.

What surprises the most is how varied those vocals get, even if we focus on the Japanese girls rather than the guests. BxMxC is really interesting with its chiptune voice effects and other vocal acrobatics. Sadly, it utilises a lot of autotune, which makes the whole thing sound artificial and false. It became really hard to not skip songs like Brand New Day and ↑↓←→BBAB when listening through again. The former features Tim Henson and Scott LePage of American math rockers Polyphia and serves mostly as a reason not to look at what they sound like normally.

How the whole album doesn't end up as an unholy mess, I have no idea. To me, some of it does. Brand New Day, for example, is an overproduced mess that I just can't stand. Future Metal is nothing but an intro with autotune. Fasten your neckbrace, it tells us, before taking us into a rave with Da Da Dance. Sometimes it works, like In the Name Of, which is choral until the Brazilian steel drums take over in time for the ethnic death growls. I have zero idea where this ends up. Which parallel universe am I in?

Night Night Burn! is the epitome of this. It starts out as electronica meets neo-classical metal and stays that way until it doesn't. Cuban rhythms play behind staccato nu metal riffage before leaping onto centre stage. Was that the James Bond theme in there? It's all over the musical map but, again, it's immersive and enticing and fascinating.

I either really liked or really disliked the first dozen songs but was never bored for a second. The biggest problem the album has isn't that it fails to be all things for all people but because it forgets what it is. After those dozen songs, there are four more but they're instantly forgettable because a key element, that wild and insane imagination, is missing from them all.

I won't diss them because I went back later and listened only to those four songs, finding that they're decent enough on their own merits. The girls go extra cute on Shine and Arkadia is a solid melodic death metal song of the sort that Abba might have made had they formed a quarter of a century later in Gothenburg. It's just that they should have been issued as a separate EP rather than buried under a dozen wild and varied musical explorations.

What's especially interesting is that my son, who saw them live a couple of weeks ago, roughly agreed with my takes but didn't match entirely. There are songs that I didn't like at all that pushed the right buttons for him. And I think that's the key here. You're not likely to enjoy everything here but it has enough tracks that deleting the half you don't still leaves half an hour of stuff that you dig and which you absolutely won't hear anywhere else.

Mudhoney - Morning in America (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Alternative
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 20 Sep 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I remember Mudhoney from their earlier days, though I never kept up with the band. I loved their 1988 single Sweet Young Thing Ain't Sweet No More, which I probably heard on the John Peel show and which featured a style I'd never heard before. It was really garage rock but so raw and so achingly slow that it tripped a lot of the same buttons that doom metal does. Of course, before long, it would evolve into grunge and the rest is history.

I had no idea that Mudhoney were back and I was even more surprised to find that they'd never gone away. They've been together since 1988 and their most recent album, their tenth, was last year's Digital Garbage. This EP seems to be a set of outtakes from that album with a few other obscurities. It's not as raw as I remember, but then that single predated any of their albums and they've cleaned up a bit since then. Fortunately, I'd say, not much. This is garage rock not much rawer than the Alice Cooper EP I reviewed yesterday.

There are seven tracks here and four of them tie to that album in some form.

Three are outtakes and my favourite is easily Creeps are Everywhere. It has an effortless nature to it but it's outstandingly catchy. This is what punk pop really ought to be: loud and sneeringly obnoxious but with a fantastic hook. If Digital Garbage was like this, I need to seek it out! I'm less fond of the other two, Morning in America and Snake Oil Charmer, but they're good songs. The former has that agreeably slow burn and is very much of its time, starting out with "America hates itself."

The fourth is Let's Kill Yourself Live Again, which is an alternate take of a Digital Garbage song called Kill Yourself Live; it had previously been the bonus track on the Japanese release. I liked this and caught many influences from Iggy Pop to Joy Division. I'd always heard that grunge's influences all had to be from Seattle, from the Sonics onwards, but I was never quite happy with that propaganda.

That leaves three more. One Bad Actor and Vortex of Lies are both taken from singles. The former was formerly half of a split 7" with Hot Snakes and the latter was a limited tour release in the EU. One Bad Actor has a lot more of that Iggy Pop vibe, Mark Arm snarling in that recognisable way while turning out riffs on an outrageously fuzzy guitar. Vortex of Lies is slower and less effective for me which makes it an odd opener for the EP. It feels like Cake but wilder and less controlled.

And that just leaves Ensam i Natt, which is a cover of a song by the Swedish band known as the Leather Nun. Even though the title is in Swedish, the song is in English, revealing that it means So Lonely Tonight. It's another solid garage rock anthem. It's my other favourite here, even though it's over too quickly at just a breath over two minutes. In fact, this whole EP could have been longer, these seven songs amounting to only twenty-two minutes. If only Mudhoney had had more outtakes!

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Exhumed - Horror (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 4 Oct 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

It seems rather appropriate to follow up an Alice Cooper release with a new album simply titled Horror. The band are Exhumed, one of California's finest death metal bands. They founded in 1990, split up in 2005 and got back together in 2010 and this is their fourth album since then, more than they released before they split, if we ignore the gratuitous covers album Garbage Daze Re-Regurgitated, as glorious as its title was.

What seemed immediately obvious was how lo-fi the recording is. It's a much quieter recording than anything else I've heard lately. In fact, everything seems to be buried in the mix. We have to turn up to eleven just to hear the band. However, it has no hesitation about leaping into action at high speed. Exhumed are old school death metal with a heavy side dose of grindcore and I have to admit I haven't delved into that of late, so this seemed fresh.

Even with fifteen songs on offer, this runs shorter than Reign in Blood, the infamously short Slayer album. Like Reign in Blood, this blisters along with hardly a moment to catch our breath and there a couple of screams that feel highly reminiscent of Tom Araya's legendary first take for Angel of Death. I only see five songs over two minutes and none over three. The shortest, as I guess has been traditional for grindcore at least since Napalm Death's You Suffer, is Utter Mutilation of Your Corpse at a mere seven seconds, four of which are fadeout.

There's very little variety here, of course. Mike Hamilton's drum kit is set to ludicrous speed for almost the entire album, a slower section in The Red Death only being slower as a relative concept. The guitars of mainstay Matt Harvey, the sole founder member, and new fish Sebastian Philips are often a blur but, after a while, the riffs start to emerge. So do the solos and I'm still not sure how they find time for two of those into a two minute song like Rabid.

I'm sure the bass of the wonderfully named Matt Sewage is somewhere in there too but I have no idea where. He's more overtly present as one of two voices in play, which offer far more contrast than harsh/harsh might suggest. One's much deeper than the other. Which one's Sewage and which is Harvey I haven't a clue. I'd have to go back to mid-period albums, as Sewage is on his second stint with the band and I really can't remember.

This really takes me back to my youth when grindcore was new and I couldn't tell the difference between most of the tracks but loved the sheer burst of energy that they provided. If thrash metal cleaned me out, grindcore was an evil alternate universe version that shattered me into pieces and then put me back together again, maybe in a different order. Some of those pits were insane and the bands weren't far behind. I don't think I've seen anyone on drums faster than whoever played for Intense Degree.

The challenge, of course, is to maintain that energy spike across an entire album. Exhumed do a pretty good job at that here, benefitting from the short running time and the many gaps between tracks. Songs do blur together but a couple of listens allows some to emerge as favourites. Mine is Ripping Death, without any doubt. Its chorus of "Ripping death, ripping fucking death" is a shopping list for the younger me back in 1989. I like Dead Meat too, a blitz at only 34 seconds, again including fadeout. Its chorus is exactly what you expect: "Dead meat. Dead meat. Dead meat. Dead meat!"

The pros are obvious. This is blitzkrieg stuff, for those who believe that Reign in Blood just wasn't fast or aggressive enough. This feels old school, though, as if it was new when the movie in the faux poster cover came out on VHS. Maybe that comes from them writing what are really pop songs sped up to crazy tempos. There are verses and choruses and hooks and that's not always the case with grindcore.

The cons mostly tie to the genre. I still like grindcore, but I find that I can't immerse myself in it for days any more. While there's variety here, it pales in comparison to what I find in folk metal or even melodic death metal when the band is someone like Insomnium. My biggest criticism here is that the album just ends, as if there might be other tracks coming later but they haven't downloaded yet. But hey, just put the album on repeat to solve that.

Alice Cooper - The Breadcrumbs EP (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Sep 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Here's something a little different. We surely all know Alice Cooper, those of us here in Phoenix where he lives especially, but he was born in Detroit and this is a six track tribute to the garage bands from that city. Most of the songs are covers which feature guest musicians from various eras of that scene, from the sixties to the present. Accordingly, it's recognisably Alice Cooper but it also doesn't sound much like what he's doing most of the time nowadays.

I found this fascinating, a lot more so than the Hollywood Vampires debut. I remember that mostly featured covers of songs originally recorded by members of the celebrity drinking club of the same name which Cooper founded. As the members were huge names, those songs were huge songs, most of them so iconic that the band found it almost impossible to reinvent. We all know songs like My Generation, Itchycoo Park and Whole Lotta Love and these new takes didn't seem remotely needed.

These are far more obscure songs so it's easier for Cooper to make them his own. I think he's a lot more successful at it too, because they fall into a consistent sound, even featuring wildly different instruments and a varied set of guests. Let's run through what's here.

Detroit City 2020 is the most obviously Alice Cooper song here, which it is because it's a rework of Detroit City, originally recorded for The Eyes of Alice Cooper album. It featured Wayne Kramer of the MC5 even back in 2003 and he's on this album too. It's a look back at the Detroit music scene and it namechecks a lot of the bands covered here.

Go Man Go is a new original song but it's a very garage punk rebel song, not remotely of the styles Cooper has recorded in lately. He has a lot of fun with the vocal line here, relishing both the lyrics and the delivery. It feels like it was written decades ago by someone else but it wasn't.

East Side Story is a Bob Seger cover, but it's an obscure one. Back in the sixties, Seger played for a number of local bands before he got famous. He wrote East Side Story for the Underdogs, while singing with Doug Brown & The Omens, with whom he made his first recording. It also became his first solo release, the band at the time being called Bob Seger & The Last Heard. That was 1966, eight years before he formed the Silver Bullet Band. It works with Alice's voice and especially with a very lively fuzzy guitar.

Your Mama Won't Like Me gets funky, not least because it adds horns. It's a Suzi Quatro cover, a Chapman/Chinn song that, with an extra M, was the title track of her third album in 1975. I'm not sure any of the words are changed, given that it now tells the story of a bad boy rather than a bad girl, but it may be verbatim. I'll have to go back to find out. It's now going to be stuck in my head all week, na na na na na na, and, well, I'm OK with that.

Devil with a Blue Dress On is the Shorty Long song from 1964, but I presume it's here because Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels recorded it a couple of years later, given that their drummer Johnny 'Bee' Badanjek guests on this version, including a little banter at the outset. The Detroit Wheels single segued into Good Golly Miss Molly, but this take goes into Chains of Love instead, a Dirtbombs cover. Mick Collins, their vocalist and guitarist, is here too. It all wraps up with both songs finishing at once, which is cool.

Last up is Sister Anne, a cover of the MC5 song that opened up their second studio album, High Time, which I'm not sure I've heard; it's so hard to get past the Kick Out the Jams debut without just re-playing. This was a Fred 'Sonic' Smith song but he's been gone since the nineties so it's guitarist Wayne Kramer here instead. And, given that he has ties to two of the songs here, I wonder if he and the others are here throughout as the band on this album rather than as just guests on their own songs.

What I'm guessing, from the cover and the song choices, is that it's Alice on vocals; Mark Farner, lead singer and guitarist for Grand Funk Railroad on guitar; the versatile multi-genre Paul Randolph on bass; and Johnny Badanjek on drums. Whether Collins and Kramer only play on their own songs is up for debate until I can see credits but I'll assume for now that they're both on more than that.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter because this is just good old time garage punk rock music and it sounds damn good with Alice's voice on it. It may be short, but it feels truer to what he does than the Hollywood Vampires debut and it means something different. Recommended for the obscurists! It's likely to have you looking backwards to the originals and that's never a bad thing. Go man, go!

Monday, 4 November 2019

Insomnium - Heart Like a Grave (2019)

Country: Insomnium
Style: Melodic Death Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 4 Oct 2019
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I find that a new Insomnium album is best listened to like classical music. Let the whole thing wash over you a few times to absorb the grand sweep of what it's doing and pick up some general impressions, then gradually focus in to the individual tracks to listen in closer detail.

Part of that is because lumping them into one genre fails to do justice to what they do. In fact, Insomnium arose in conversation this weekend because of that. They're usually described as melodic death metal, which is a fair initial assessment, but there's a heck of a lot more there. My younger son has seen them live a couple of times; he apparently thinks of them as Viking metal, possibly because one of those gigs was with Amon Amarth. To me, doom is a good part of their sound, though they're not just doom or doom/death. I hear a lot of Paradise Lost in their guitar sound, especially on songs like Neverlast. And then there's neo-prog.

While we can't remotely throw Insomnium into the neo-prog bucket, the band who came to mind quickest for me as a comparison this time out was Fish-era Marillion, starting with the opening track, Wail of the North. While they're surely not aiming at a melodeath Script for a Jester's Tear, there's so much Marillion here. It's in the the dynamics and how ambitious their range is, not to forget the way that the quiet parts build so inventively. It's also in how the music remains complex even after the crunch kicks in, in large part because of the keyboards. And it's in the slow soaring solos too.

Wail of the North is a short song. At only three minutes, it's the shortest on the album by almost two more and a heck of a lot shorter than the forty minute track that comprised their previous album. The ten songs here amount to a smidge over an hour and most are six or seven minutes each, maybe just a little longer than they used to be, as if the band have really found their length. The few shorter songs end quickly, as if they wanted another minute to wrap up properly.

Also like early Marillion, they have a consistent, very recognisable sound, but manage to vary it considerably. These songs tend to begin with delicate acoustic guitar intros, which roll into the songs proper really well. Then the harder edge kicks in with emphasis, there being three guitarists in the band nowadays, after Jani Liimatainen joined this year. Many gallop along at pace, with harsh but intelligible vocals from Niilo Sevänen, but always with melody. Sure, melodic death goes for melody over brutality but everything in Insomnium songs is melody, even the riffs.

At some point, they slow down, whether that be for a spoken word section (or a whispered one) or for a slower melody on one of those guitars. This is the Paradise Lost influence, I think, but the way it's handled reminds of eagles soaring in a sky we can't always see. During the verses, they're lost behind the canopy of the forest, but in slower sections the sky becomes visible and we watch their majesty.

I also caught a lot of folk music here, though again Insomnium aren't a folk metal band. There are no fiddles or accordions here and this isn't remotely Korpiklaani or Finntroll. However, there's folk music in the acoustic intros and, occasionally, it keeps going into the song itself, especially the title track which is folky but still dark.

It's hard to pick favourites here. Valediction, the first single, is one. I can't forget Mute is My Sorrow, with great keyboards, an atmospheric spoken word section and another gorgeous soaring solo. And Bells They Toll finds a really nice balance of dynamics, melodic riffs and soaring guitar, but then so do half a dozen songs here. This is one of those albums where you might find your favourites changing each time you listen.

Karelia is a highlight too, wrapping up the album. It's not the longest song on offer but it feels the most timeless, perhaps because it's instrumental. Then again, while the vocals are mostly intelligible, they're always here as an instrument. Somehow Karelia doesn't seem to be missing out. It finds its own way without voices and that makes for an immersive eight minutes.

This felt good from a first listen but it gets better each time through. It makes me jealous that my son has seen them live twice and I haven't yet seen them at all. I guess I need to fix that next April in Mesa.

Dan McCafferty - Last Testament (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 13 Sep 2019
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Our heroes are getting older. Axe called it a day earlier this year with an excellent Final Offering forty years after their debut and the spate of old bands releasing new material this year after decades away from the studio is a sign that they may not be alone. Case in point: Dan McCafferty, the voice behind Scottish hard rock legends Nazareth since he co-founded that band in 1968, left it in 2013 after 45 years after health issues prevented him from touring. The title of this album, only his third solo release, suggests that it may well the last we hear of him too. I hope not.

Initially, it looks very much like a look back at a life and a career. Just as it was impossible not to interpret David Bowie's last single, Lazarus, as a reflection of his mortality, McCafferty's clearly feeling his age and the weight of the years since he started singing for Nazareth. You and Me opens up the album with, "It seems so far away, all of our yesterdays"; "We lived our lives so fast, wondering if it could last"; "Those were the days before. They're all gone."

For a few songs, it seems like this is McCafferty saying goodbye to a life of music, even when he's singing about relationships in Looking Back. "It's goodbye," he says. "Can't hold on when it's gone." It's all melancholy and thoughtful and reflective. Yet, it's also an affirmation that it isn't over, at least not yet. "We can't move on," he sings in Tell Me. Look at the Song in My Eyes is present tense and a suggestion that he has more music for us in store. "I feel the music in me flow," he affirms.

He certainly sounds good, with a voice that knows when to be broken and when to roar. Why is a ballad that has a kick because of what his voice brings to it. I Can't Find the One for Me is a quiet song that carries some real power for no reason other than that he wills it. There are some exquisite moments in this song, McCafferty's rasp as iconic as ever.

And, after keeping it relatively calm for half a dozen songs, he shifts up a gear at the heart of the album as if he's half of his 73 years. Home is Where the Heart Is is a jaunty rocker with a whistling section and plenty of bagpipes. It's strong and would seem more so if it wasn't followed with My Baby, a raucous track with McCafferty spitting out the words like he's Brian Johnson.

At this point, we've worried and had our worries put to rest, we've had our emotions put through the wringer, we've been serenaded and rocked. And then he hits us with what is surely the best song on the album, Refugee. This is a poignant political commentary that's exquisitely written and delivered. It may well be the best message song that I've heard this year and, frankly, if there were any other candidates, they've probably just gone to hide. These words have bite and McCafferty nails them all.

Then it's Mafia, which starts out experimental then gets sweet and moves on with accordion. There's a lot of that here, because it seems that the music was written by Karel Marik, an accordion player from the Czech Republic who also produced the album. McCafferty wrote the lyrics and, of course, makes his presence count. He dominates the album, Marik's music mostly content to support the voice rather than try for the spotlight too.

It's a good album, though it's a long one too. I don't know if my copy is a special edition, but it runs six minutes over an hour, with fourteen tracks plus an acoustic version of the opener, You and Me, to close out. It might suggest that McCafferty dumped out the contents of his brain into what might indeed be his Last Testament. On the other hand, it might suggest that he's overflowing with songs and we can look forward to The Testament After Last and The Testament After That. I hope so.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Angel Witch - Angel of Light (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 1 Nov 2019
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I was a few years too young to have experienced Angel Witch in their heyday, around the release of their self-titled debut album in 1980, but I caught up pretty soon after. I found rock and metal in 1984 and a newly reformed Angel Witch put out their second album a year later. That debut album still holds up, almost forty years on, for all its primitive production, and the opening self-titled track is only one favourite of mine from it.

I was surprised to find that they've hardly ever gone away. This is only the fifth studio album for them (I've only missed As Above, So Below in 2012, an album that apparently featured Bill Steer from Carcass!) but they've been an active band in one form or another since their founding in 1976 except for a couple of odd years out in 1983 and 1999. The only consistent member by that 1983 breakup had been Kevin Heybourne and he's stayed that way since. Oddly, I've always felt that he was both the best and worst things about the band.

There are two reasons for the former and one for the latter and they're just as obvious here as ever.

On the side of the best are his guitarwork and his composition. Every track here is led by strong riffs from Heybourne's guitar, which prevents even the weaker songs from becoming ignorable and elevates the stronger ones. There's real power to The Night is Calling, for example, and Death from Andromeda is a corker. The most old school is probably Condemned, which steams along on memorable riffs, but the album seems to get more traditional as it runs on, with Window of Despair and I am Infamy reminiscent of the early days.

Also, while Angel Witch was a major influence on the early speed and thrash metal scenes, they're as known for their melodies and hooks as their riffs. You know a hook's good when you're able to sing along with it even on your first listen and I found myself doing that on a few songs here, especially the opener and first single, Don't Turn Your Back.

On the side of the worst are his vocals, not just because he's always been a much better guitarist than a singer but because the production this time out buries them a few levels deeper in the mix than they ought to be. Maybe it's compensation of sorts for the production on that debut album which fails in the opposite direction, the vocals being so up front that their weaknesses are impossible to ignore.

Not for the first time, I found myself wishing that Heybourne might hire an actual vocalist so that he can concentrate on what he does best: write songs and play guitar. For now, this is just another reminder that Angel Witch are still with us, something I'm very happy for, even if this album doesn't work as well as a first album in seven years (and especially a second album in no less than thirty-three) ought to. But hey, this reminds me to go back to the debut again and any excuse for that is a good one.