Friday, 19 July 2019

Zion Knight - Zion Knight (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Melodic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2019
Sites: none

Here's a bit of a cheat, given that I'm only supposed to be reviewing 2019 releases here at Apocalypse Later and this album was recorded back in 1991. Well, it was never released, outside of a promo cassette, and it languished on some shelf until April this year, when it saw a long overdue release by 20th Century Music.

I hadn't heard about it until this morning's Raised on Rock radio show (on 10 Radio last night in the UK) when Chris Franklin, purveyor of all things melodic, played the opening track, Maiden Voyage. I liked the song and dug the story so I dug a little deeper. Zion Knight, who hailed from Florida, I believe, rather than the expected Jerusalem, given the name, were another one off band for vocalist David Mikael, the singer for MPG and regular name on other one off AOR releases for bands like Thunderbox, Presence, As Is, Tin House and more. He also plays bass and keyboards.

Frankly, I liked his bass work here, though he's a better singer. His voice has been compared to some of the best in his genre, often people like Eric Martin or Lou Gramm, and I can see that, but he also pulls out a little Dio on points in Rock Rules the Knight and some Sean Harris on Sweet Searcher. He's very good at what he does and, frankly, I just wish I could hear what he does better, because one reason why this may not have been released back in 1991 is that he's far too low in the mix.

While I liked the opener, I found that the album got more interesting as it ran on. What really sold me on Zion Knight was Cry of the Dove, a couple of songs into the album. I liked the whole song, including the heartfelt vocal, an adjective that's a good thing in AOR, but the overlays were gorgeous, at the beginning and at the end. The titular dove coos and frolics with what I think might be cymbals or some sort of keyboard flourish, with a dark bass underpinning them. It's a really neat sound and the guitar solo it sets up soars beautifully.

It didn't just sell me on the band but on their versatility as well. Sweet Searcher was the next standout for me, as it aims for real depth. It wasn't just David Mikael's voice that reminded me of Diamond Head but the way that the track was constructed and how the guitars of Roderick Gray-Lewis were eager to explore and build while he's singing. And I'm thinking Canterbury-era Diamond Head, by the way, when they were even more unfairly overlooked. Somehow it helps that it sounds like Zion Knight recorded this one outside in the rain. It's gorgeous.

No AOR band could survive back in 1991 without at least a pair of standout radio friendly singles and I'd suggest that Bad Disposition could be the first such here and Lady of My Dreams the follow up. Thirty years on, I'm starting to hear singles from this era show up on my local classic rock station and it wouldn't be a hardship to hear Bad Disposition three times a day.

The downsides are obvious from moment one. The production isn't great, even for 1991, let alone for 2019. The introduction, titled The Warrior, is told with cheesy language and an even cheesier voice. The drummer's name is Chip Micronus, which surely can't be real. This doesn't sound like the work of a drum machine, but Chip Micronus has to be either that or the villain in an especially bad episode of the Power Rangers.

And, of course, the record is 28 frickin' years late. I'm glad it's finally getting a release, even in a limited edition of 500 copies. But I'm glad to be hearing it and I hope you are too.

Mefitis - Despair (2019)

Country: China
Style: Progressive Black Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 19 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Metal Archives

I have to admit that this EP leapt out for a number of reasons. For one, it features progressive black metal from Beijing, China, which had to be heard. For another, the demonic growling vibrato is provided by the same young lady who did the cover art, Rexco by name. And for three, Rexco aside, the band don't remotely look Chinese. Drummer Darian Kocmur also plays in Teleport, who are certainly appropriately named given that they're based in Slovenia, making his commute pretty tedious otherwise. And that leaves Allen Darling, surely the least Chinese name I can imagine, even with the prefix of Lucky, as it often has. He used to be the entire band.

This is Mefitis's debut EP, but Darling released a demo under that name back in 2017, called Nascence, and handled everything on it himself: the vocals, the guitars, the bass and the drum programming, quite probably the delivery of lunch during recording for good measure. I took a quick listen to that in preparation for this and quickly realised that the addition of other band members helped a great deal. Mefitis are deeper and more interesting when he doesn't have to do everything himself.

And they are both deep and interesting. This is a short EP, blistering along for the most part for twenty minutes, at which point it's done, but it does much of note along the way. Never mind the point a minute into opener Cetus when they shift between a few tempos seamlessly, what's going on behind the repeat of that thirty seconds later? There's a twanging that's only just in hearing, but is impossible to ignore, that sounds like Jew's harp. It comes back later, as do tempo changes, the instrumental section as far in again a real highlight and a very complex one too.

The beginning of Ecdysis, which means the shedding of an outer cuticle layer by animals who go in for that sort of thing, is gloriously intricate too. I was thrown back to bands like Mekong Delta who brought avant garde jazz into an extreme metal mindset back in the late eighties.

Desecrate is even more interesting. It starts out minimally, with Rexco like a demon creature recently escaped from a cage and ready to devour anyone or anything she encounters in the next five minutes. She has a wild and evilly dangerous voice and, while I have no idea what language she's singing, let alone what words, it's often easy to get caught up in what she's doing and forget there's music being played behind her. That music is far slower here, even when it gallops, and there are so many cymbals in play that surely some of them have to be bells.

That leaves Lotophagi, or Lotus Eaters, presumably meaning the tribe of lost addicts that Odysseus encountered when returning home from Troy, given that Cetus was a sea monster in Greek mythology. Of course, Mefitis was Roman not Greek, or rather pre-Roman as she was the goddess of poisonous vapours (foul-smelling gases of the earth) to the Samnites, who dominated central Italy in the years before the rise of Rome.

This one layers voices, demonic and clean, surely male and female too, and gets all melodic behind them. At the two and a half minute mark, everything goes quiet, a rumbling bass and a delicate guitar providing the eye in the storm that inevitably returns with a vengeance.

How this trio stay so tight when there are so many time changes, I have no idea. I presume it's a heck of a lot of practice. Having Darling on guitars and bass means that they can't have played live in the studio, of course. I wonder how many takes they took to knock out Lotophagi. The layering of the multiple voices helped it too, because, while I enjoyed Rexco's voice, it's really difficult to vary a delivery like that and that approach was getting old, even by that point.

I got a real kick out of this, but twenty minutes is probably a good length, as I'm not sure how I'd react to twenty more of similar material. I have a good deal of praise for the variety they snuck into the first twenty but I don't believe that a further twenty would help coherence. As it stands, I'm liking the ways they're finding to subvert their black metal, but I'm ready for it to get old as soon as that supply of subversion runs out.

I'd like to hear a full length album now just to see if they can keep this style interesting for forty minutes plus.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

人間椅子 - 新青年 (2019)

Country: Japan
Style: Heavy Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 5 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia | YouTube

Yesterday, I discovered German cosmic prog rockers Dice, through their 21st studio album. Talk about late to the party! Well, I'm late again, because here's a Japanese band I'm discovering through, you guessed it, their 21st album. At least here I have an excuse, because unlike Loudness and Bow/Vow Wow, they don't seem to use the English language at all, presumably content with playing to a growing Japanese audience.

Their name (Ningen-Isu) translates to The Human Chair and is taken from the title of an Edogawa Rampo story from 1925, more recently reimagined into a manga by Junji Ito and also adapted into a 1997 movie. The album translates to New Youth, though I have no idea what it's aiming at. The band date back to 1987 and have only changed drummers in that time, the latest being Nobu Nakajima who joined in 2004. They're not new youth and they don't look like it (guitarist Shinji Wajima wears the attire of a literary master from the Meiji era, so late Victorian); bass player Kenichi Suzuki wears a Buddhist monk's robes and paints his head white; and drummer Nobu Nakajima dresses like a yakuza). Maybe the audience is the new youth.

It's hard to pigeonhole them, which is a good thing. They've been described as the Japanese Black Sabbath but I don't see a lot of that here. There's a very Tony Iommi riff halfway through the appropriately named 瀆神 (which I've seen translated as both God and Blasphemy), but that's about it. Maybe they used to be more doomladen in the past. The closest I heard to Sabbath otherwise was some bass work on 月のアペニン山 (Montes Apenninus) and, if we stretch through a level of abstraction, a riff or two on あなたの知らない世界 (or The World You Do Not Know) are reminiscent of Randy Rhoads from early Ozzy solo albums.

It starts out sounding pretty contemporary. Opening track 新青年まえがき (or Preface to New Youth) sounds like Rage Against the Machine should they try to be a classic metal band. 鏡地獄 (The Hell of Mirrors) slows down and adds a little bit of space rock. It's older school but with a modern feel, like an alternative band brought some Hawkwind into an alternative song. Then it's God/Blasphemy and the most common influence manifests itself, namely Judas Priest.

There's a lot of Priest on this album. 巌窟王 (The Count of Monte Cristo) has an acute Priest sound and so does 宇宙のディスクロージャー (or Disclosure by Universe). I have no idea what the subtle linguistic difference is between 地獄小僧 (Boy from Hell) and 地獄小僧 (Hell-Sent Child), but they're next to each other on the album and the latter is another Priest-infused track. The former, however, feels like it ought to be on the soundtrack of a Japanese biker movie. It growls with menace that may turn out not to be menace at all, just loud bikes.

いろはにほへと (or Even the Blossoming Flowers) shows up between the first two Priest-laden tracks and does something very different. It has that bouncy feel from the opener and underlines how Ningen-Isu are a power trio, because that's a very prominent bass from Kenichi Suzuki. It also has the only ethnic sounds that I caught anywhere on the album, with cymbals that sound quintessentially Japanese. The closest otherwise is some background woodblock sounds early in Montes Apenninus, but they could come from anywhere.

The other influence I found here ties to that power trio reference, because 暗夜行路 (A Dark Night's Passing) carries a real Budgie sound to it, just with a much lower voice from whichever band member handles vocal duties. He's not remotely trying to emulate Burke Shelley's voice even if the riffs could be leftovers from the first couple of Budgie albums. 無情のスキャット (well, Heartless Scat, says Google Translate), the eight minute epic final track, continues in a Budgie vein.

Clearly, after 21 albums, Ningen-Isu have developed their own sound, even if some of their influences are reasonably obvious. I enjoyed this album, which is mostly heavy and powerful. It speeds up at points but never becomes speed or thrash metal, just faster heavy metal. There's a progressive edge too that is most obvious on Montes Apenninus, a much quieter and introspective song that anything else on the album.

I've listened through this a few times now and it's starting to find some cohesion. Initially, it sounded more like a collection of decent tracks that Ningen-Isu might have recorded over the last decade but, over time, I found some commonality that tied it together. They just don't want to do only one thing and I'm hardly going to complain about that.

And, hey, I have twenty prior studio albums to explore if I can find them to see where how that sound developed.

Elder - The Gold & Silver Sessions (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

I've been getting things done today and it was instantly relaxing to return to my office, throw on some new Elder and start to chill before sleep. This isn't what we normally expect from the band and deliberately so. The label Blues Funeral Recordings have set up a PostWax project to challenge bands to attempt things they wouldn't usually do on their regular albums. That means that Elder got quiet.

This is instrumental psychedelic rock that's engaging but easy to listen to, not the much louder and heavier stoner/doom metal with vocals that's filled four highly regarded studio albums from them thus far. The name comes from a side project of multi-instrumentalist main man Nick DiSalvo, Gold & Silver and the cover turns those into the sun and the moon, opposites but somehow symbiotes. It's a different angle to Elder but what's telling is that, even so, it's still an impressive release.

There are only three tracks here on what they're calling an EP but, at well over thirty minutes, this is longer than many albums that I've reviewed of late. All are instrumental attempts to find grooves and create soundscapes, though they vary a good deal. The shortest takes up a mere five and a half minutes and the longest runs way past eighteen. They each have a different sound.

The first track is called Illusory Motion and that's a really apt title. I felt emphatically comfortable sat in my chair writing while the music took me somewhere else entirely. Eight minutes in, it becomes lively, suggesting that there's danger wherever we've ended up but it's all going to be fine. Don't worry. This is the most psychedelic track here and it's definitely a trip, but it's an enjoyable one, wherever it took me.

Im Morgengrauen is smoother still, flowing like a river for over half its running time. It appropriately starts out with echoing synths, given that Morgengrauen is the dawn. It's surprising to find Elder sound like an exotic Barry White number, but the guitar refuses to play that sultry game. The band have always been as progressive as psychedelic and this is very much the former rather than the latter. Stoner fans may dig this, but it's not stoner rock, it's instrumental prog in a laid back Pink Floyd way. Maybe it gets a little busier for Floyd later on, but hey.

Weißensee, presumably named for the district in Berlin, is very Tangerine Dream. The core of it is repetitive but it has little touches here and there to keep it interesting and the track builds. Patience is a virtue! It evolves into something more like a Grateful Dead jam and then, around the sixteen minute mark, it kicks in with the church organ and then rocks out for a few minutes to the close. It's the perfect way to energise me and make me want to play the whole thing again.

I wonder how this will be received by Elder fans, of whom there are plenty nowadays after Lore put them emphatically on the map and Reflections of a Floating World made a lot of end of year lists and escalated their profile. The Gold & Silver Sessions is not what they usually do, but it's compatible with it and, in its quiet way, it's pretty inventive. I think it'll work just fine for the diehards and bring some more fans on board too. Good stuff is good stuff.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Dice - Yes-2-5-Roger-Roger (2019)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 17 Jul 2019
Sites: Official Website | Prog Archives | Wikipedia

I've reviewed a lot of albums this year from well-established bands, names I know well, who just haven't recorded anything in forever. The first album in ten years, the first this millennium, the first since I was born... it seems like they're expanding the gap each time out. Well, I have to call Dice as close to the opposite of that as can be found. They're well-established, as they were founded as far back as 1974 and haven't lost a founder member yet, but that's about it.

I'd never heard of them before, which continues to underline just how much I don't know about German rock and metal, even though I've thought of myself as a fan for decades, not just Rammstein and the Scorpions but Warlock, Can, Destruction, Uli Jon Roth, Sieges Even, Tangerine Dream and many more. Well, I've been really schooled this year, having finally discovered bands as not new and not minor as Lucifer's Friend, Iron Savior, Oomph!, Illuminate and, now, Dice. They're certainly not new, having released an album every single year since 1997: twenty of them studio releases and three live.

They tend to be labelled as prog rock, which is fair, but there's a strong element of space rock here too, albeit not in the way old school Hawkwind fans might expect. Dice are more like Pink Floyd if Pink Floyd were aliens. Or, perhaps as the title of their 2004 album suggests, If the Beatles Were from Another Galaxy, but there's certainly a lot more Floyd here than the Fab Four.

This is like Floyd's Wish You Were Here, not quite so laid back but looser, less cynical and with stranger vocals, Christian Nóvé's accented and oddly disconnected English making him seem like a shaman from otherspace who's floating over a lake of liquid guitar chords waiting for us to locate his frequency. He also drifts in and out, because each of the five tracks proper here run over ten minutes and there's plenty of instrumental opportunity.

I was a little put off by the experimental intro and that ghostly voice on Alive in the Galaxy but, by the end of the track, I was hooked. I know that I need to throw this onto headphones in the wee hours of the morning as the music swirls around, drifting from speaker to speaker and back. If the goal is to make us feel like we're out there in the great beyond, seeing things, as Roy Batty would have it, that you people wouldn't believe, then they're certainly on the right lines.

It's patient stuff, the drums of Tommy Tomson adding texture to the tracks rather than setting a pace. The most overt instrument in play is the guitar of Peter Viertel, which spirals off wherever he wants it to go, even during times when Nóvé is singing. It feels like the other band members can choose to follow him or not, as if they're a rock band supporting a jazz guitarist who's firmly in charge. Arguably, it's Nóvé's band, because he provides the bass and keyboards in addition to the vocals, and writes and produces, but, listening dry, it's Viertel's show.

Some songs are jazzier than others too, Alive in the Galaxy playing more as space rock but Living Day to Day often reminiscent of a jazzy cross between Steely Dan and Jethro Tull, with very lively cymbals. Black Stars feels yet more psychedelic than its predecessors, not just because of the spaced out keyboards but because of a late sixties pop influence, even though it ends up in familiar territory soon enough. Cybersky carries an industrial sound to keep things even more interesting.

I liked this a lot but a little more as an experience than a musical album. Suggesting that an album feels longer than it is usually tends to mean that it drags. That's not the case here, even though this is a mere snip shorter than an hour but feels like it sucked me in for a week and dropped me back home mind expanded and body recovering. That's a good thing. It's an album well worth losing yourself inside.

Kilonova - Omnicide (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Twitter | YouTube

Oh, this takes me back. Kilonova are a new band, playing interesting thrash out of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I've sunk a few pints there in my time, just not during the lifetimes of these band members, judging from their photo. They were formed as recently as 2017 and this is their debut EP, after a couple of singles, one of which is also present here.

I say interesting because the sound doesn't quite stay where I expected it to. Initially, kicking off with Descent / Straight to Hell, this is clearly old school thrash and not just because the EP sounds like it was produced in 1990. I heard a lot of stuff like this back then, whether live, on demos I'd picked up or in sessions on the Friday Rock Show. Kilonova would surely have competed in the Rock War, had they been together (and alive) back then and I think they'd have done well with Blood in the Water, their epic track here.

The most obvious diversion from old school thrash is the shouting voice of Ellen Hill. She looks like the sort of girl you could take home to see mum, albeit not in her stage attire, but she can scream and shout with the best of them and could easily land a job fronting a hardcore band. There's some early Exodus in her voice and it's pretty substantial, but she's able to seamlessly shift to other styles as needed.

The band don't always stay at high speed either, though they start out that way with Straight to Hell and Hang the Hangman, two blistering three minute tracks. It's the latter that slows down a little for the chorus to suggest an acute Toranaga influence. That's all the more overt on Own Enemy, which kicks off with a nice acoustic intro (and a very prominent bass underneath it from Joe Bambrick), finds a gloriously simple but effective riff which the band stubbornly and achingly refuses to speed up, and ends with some thoughtful intricacy.

Blood in the Water, at six and a half minutes, does some of the same but it mixes things up even more. Hill sings, shouts and screams; Bambrick gets another good prowling run; drummer Steve Rouse elevates proceedings with emphasis in the midsection and guitarist Jonny Sloan gets to show off in slow and fast parts. It's a very rounded song that ably showcases what this band can do.

The biggest problem this EP has is that, coming up on seventeen minutes, it only has one song left. Ivory Tower is another good one, with some ramped up sections, to bring us home truly energised. Kilonova tend to be described as thrash metal and they're certainly that but there's heavy and power metal in here too, across a variety of tracks, and they do all of it well.

I remember fondly a number of nothern bands from the late eighties whom I followed from their demos and saw live as often as I could: names like Metal Messiah, Catharsis, Darkened and others. None of them really made it big, an album and a Friday Rock Show session for the former being as close as they got, but they were always entertaining. I'd see Kilonova in the same bucket and, if I wasn't six thousand miles away now, I'd be checking the listings to see how far I need to travel to see them play next week. Bradford? Leeds? York?

Now, I can only hope that they outlast some of those bands and stay together long enough to put an album out! I'm looking forward to it because I want to see these guys develop.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Razorblades Terror - Return of the Crown (2019)

Country: Indonesia
Style: Technical Death Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 2 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Twitter

I have a love/hate relationship with the brutal end of death metal, finding that a lot of it finds an interesting tone but does little more than drag it out for however many tracks are on any particular album or even a career. It might sound great on a first listen but it gets old really quickly for me, unlike melodic death metal which can change up from track to track if need be and add in all sorts of textures as it does so.

The closest I've got of late to brutal death metal that I really like is an Indonesian band by the name of Razorblades Terror, who play technical death metal. What that means is that they play with a brutal back end that's fast and downtuned but with a front end that's dominated by shredding guitarwork. The vocals are deep and growly, but are surprisingly versatile.

Most of this album is done at great speed. Fafa sets a relentless pace on the drums for Borky's bass to track. Whenever Tom pauses his growls, Dwy's fingers go dancing and we have frantic melody over frantic backing. On its own, that's pretty cool and I dig the sound.

But that isn't all that Razorblades Terror do and it's the rest that makes them special. For one thing, even though they're more brutal than melodic in tone, they construct their songs like melodeath bands. They introduce some variety on the opener, Binary of Gold, which follows a minute of blitzkrieg with a spoken word section and ends with a sort of choral crescendo that I presume is really done with keyboards.

Suckcial Media is what caught my attention. It's frantic, like most of this band's songs, but it gets much more varied than I expected. There are parts in the middle that transform into heavy power metal, with a slower approach, melodic riffing and more of that choral thing. And, as always, whatever goes on with the band, as fast and deep and brutal as they get, you can be sure that the guitarist is noodling along at high speed on his fretboard.

Dwy does this so much that there are points where he's still going as one song shuts down on him, so that he has to immediately carry on on the next one from where he left off. If there wasn't a pause between Suckcial Media and Racism Culture, I'd have thought they were the same song. This approach could easily have led to the album becoming one long repetitive track, but little touches of variety elevate the material.

The onslaught pauses in Racism Culture, for instance, for a lovely creeping bass run, something that happens in Death Prophercy too, among other points. Another is during a staccato section in Corps of Robot that highlights how capable each band member is, including whoever's handling the keyboards. If we doubted that there were keyboards, they get more obvious on Particle of Throne because there's clearly a piano in play and handled classically too. That returns for Death Prophercy and especially for Outro the Crown, which is an instrumental outro.

I enjoyed Return of the Crown a lot, finding that it energised me with its speed and brutality but kept my attention with its guitarwork and variety. It's probably important that Tom's voice didn't annoy me the way that a lot of brutal death metal vocalists do. He doesn't do anything new or ambitious, but he mixes things up a little by setting the tempo as effectively as the drummer.

The most obvious downside, for those who don't find this style repetitive, is the fact that the band's command of the English language, in which they sing, isn't particularly great. Of course, I have the same problem here in Phoenix, because most people can't conjure up coherent sentences any more, but I'm not sure what I'm supposed to make of song titles like Particle of Throne, Binary of Gold or Corps of Robot. What's a Saliva Dealer and what's Candle Philosophy? I'm not sure that these things mean what they think they mean.

It really doesn't matter much, because Tom's vocals are not designed to be particularly intelligible, so confusedly looking over the track listing is about as problematic as it gets. No, that's not how Death Prophercy should be spelled. The catch is that, when Tom does appear to get intelligible, it doesn't work. The chorus on Suckcial Media sounds very much like "Everyone is daughter". I presume it isn't.

But hey, if that's all I can raise as a negative here, you know this is an impressive album! It's well written, well produced and well performed and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Elusion - Singularity (2019)

Country: Belgium
Style: Symphonic Gothic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 28 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website

I googled the best metal bands in Belgium and, while Elusion weren't on the first list that I found, Ancient Rites topped it and that's the former band of Domingo Smets, who founded Elusion in 2015 after well over a decade and three albums with them. Maybe once Elusion have recorded more, they might be on there too. This is their debut album, after an EP, Desert of Enticement, in 2016 and it's pretty decent.

Metal Archives tells me that they play symphonic gothic metal, which seems fair but there's a lot less gothic than there is symphonic. Evy Verbruggen has the clean operatic style that you might expect with a decent range and everything else is built around that, including the darker growls of bass player Kristof Degreef, which often seem to be intended as much to introduce or punctuate Verbruggen as to contrast her. He's far from a co-lead, showing up here and there only as needed.

Another aspect that shouldn't surprise is that Elusion are comfortable with longer length, conjuring up complex songs with layers to explore. Only four of the ten tracks here run shorter than five minutes and one of those is an instrumental outro. However, only one exceeds six minutes, Anamnesis, which lasts over eight and wraps up the album in suitably epic style.

I enjoyed the opener, Choices and Chances, but it was the next two that sold me on the album.

The Strive is the obvious single, with its bouncy riffs, a catchy lead vocal and a heavy midsection with Degreef's most prominent vocal contribution. It starts out cinematic, with swordfights and ominous humming, but ends with a round. It's adventurous and ambitious but still accessible. The band clearly like it too because there's also a remix version here that translates it to electronic darkwave.

The Tales That Trees Tell is less accessible but just as enjoyable. Degreef is a tease on this one, serving to set up Verbruggen nicely. The guitars of Smets and someone I believe is called Stijn, stalk behind them, as if to let us know to pay attention to the background. Especially towards the end, we hear hints of flutes dancing just out of sight, as if they're hiding behind the trees of the title. Both these songs feel visual and that's not uncommon on this album.

If the rest of the album isn't as good, that's just by comparison. I enjoyed each of the tracks in different ways, not least because they kept on adding new sounds. There are Egyptian drums on Reconciliation of Opposites, there's a harp on In Eternity and there's brass on Crystal Doubts.

Lovelorn has a waltzing midsection to get our feet moving and interesting clean gothic vocals that came out of nowhere but felt very much at home. We get a clean duet too and that harp to emphasise the visuals. Maybe this is the gothic aspect; I'm seeing grand balls in grand ballrooms, even if I'm not seeing vampires in the middle of the dance. In Eternity brings the harp to the fore and adds a spoken word section over strings. Again, it's gothic in the sense that it conjures up period visuals rather than that it sounds like a song a goth might like.

Reconciliation of Opposites is appropriately titled because it gets heavier again but leaves Verbruggen soaring sweetly above everything else. I'm much more fond of heavier Elusion than lighter, I like the rhythm section, which chugs along well, and I like it when Verbruggen really stretches her vocal chords, as she does most obviously on My War Within.

I liked this on a first listen but the middle of the album didn't seem to hold up to the bookends: the great two tracks at the beginning and the epic Anamnesis at the end. A second listen elevated them because there's depth in them to explore, but the standouts remain the same.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Omen - Halálfogytiglan (2019)

Country: Hungary
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Omen's The Curse was one of those albums that was everywhere in the eighties but my first surprise here was that this Omen isn't that Omen. Maybe the title of this album should have given me a hint but I'd forgotten that the other Omen were from Los Angeles. This particular Omen, who also play power metal, are from Budapest. They've been around since 1990 and they've been busy too, as I'm seeing eleven studio albums to their name, plus a live and a best of.

I dug this immediately, though I was a little worried at how Most kezdödik, appropriately the opening track given that the title apparently translates to It's Starting Now, was reminiscent of Symphony of Destruction. It's not unfair to think of Megadeth here, as Omen are certainly the heaviest power metal band I've heard in a long time. They're always upbeat but never lose their crushing heaviness even when they speed up, which they don't do as often as I might have expected, given that they're often tagged with speed and thrash too.

They're at their best, I think, when they're chugging along because they're so damn tight and the production does a fantastic job of highlighting that. It may be partly because the longest standing members include Zoltán Nagyfi, the band's patient but powerful drummer. He's been with Omen since 1990 and so has guitarist László Nagyfi, who I presume is related. I was expecting a long standing bassist, but József Mezöfi didn't join until 2017.

If the band is rock steady in the rhythm department, rumbling along like a neverending earthquake, they're also elevated by the vocals of Péter Molnár, which are tough but clean. He resists any urge to descend into growls but he has a powerful guttural voice nonetheless. He's the new fish, having become the band's fifth vocalist only this year, but I'd have guessed that he had years with the band. I'd be surprised if those other four singers matched the band's style so well; three of them had multiple albums to do so and two had a full decade. I'll have to listen backwards to see.

Oddly, and unlike that other Omen, this band don't really sound like anyone that I can conjure up in comparison. I do hear elements of other bands: the patient power of a Metal Church, the melodic chugging of a Megadeth and the riffs and solos of an Accept, but the complete songs rarely sound like any of those bands. The closest is the title track, which is very reminiscent of Metal Church's style. It's done very well too, but I guess they have enough years and albums behind them to be able to sound like themselves.

Like the Black Pistol album I reviewed this morning, this is very consistent stuff and choosing favourite tracks really comes down to favourite riffs as much as anything. I'd call out Lehunyt szemmel, or With Eyes Closed, as one highlight, except that it gets smoked by the next song, Egy jobb pokol, or A Better Hell, with an effortless riff worthy of Accept and a grungy chorus. I like its solo too, though it ends too quickly; the twin guitars are courtesy of László Nagyfi and Matt Nagy. They deserve more attention.

And so do Omen. I've listened through this album a few times and it's still as heavy as ever, even when finding memorable melodies for voice and guitar like Az lesz, ami volt, or It Will Be What It Was. I have no understanding of Hungarian but I was trying to sing along with this one on my first time. Trying and failing, of course, but it really made me want to try and that's what counts!

I think I need to come back to this in a week or two and see if it holds up. I may need to up my rating.

Black Pistol - Sins of the Father (2019)

Country: South Africa
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Jul 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | YouTube

Not to be confused with Canadian rockers Black Pistol Fire, Black Pistol are a South African hard rock band with a stoner edge, because of the slightly fuzzy guitarwork of Roan Mustang. That contribution edges them more towards a Wolfmother comparison than an Airbourne one, those being the couple most obvious modern bands to raise. I've read that they have the usual sort of classic influences too but I'm hearing them a lot less.

They've been around since 2014 and this is their debut album, after a self-titled EP back in 2017. While they sound tight and natural together, there have been line-up changes. Apparently Stiaan Bruwer is a recent addition on vocals, as is a gentleman called Daniel on drums (the band's Facebook page credits him as Nicolas Cage, so I have no idea what his surname really is). The other band member is Jacques le Roux, who with Mustang, has been there for a lot longer, perhaps throughout.

While I'll freely admit that it was the fantastic cover art that grabbed my attention first, the music wasn't far behind. This is a deep album worthy of exploration but it's also an immediate one, with an enticing opening track, Nowhere to Run beginning with a brief drum solo, heavy bass and then bouncy vocals combined with bouncy riffs. The only oddity is that the bridge sounds bizarrely reminiscent of classic Magnum, who would not otherwise be raised in this review. It's very much Bob Catley phrasing.

For all the contemporary comparisons that can be conjured up, Nowhere to Run is an old school track with everything it needs and little more too for good measure. It's lively and very much to the point. The vocals are playful and melodic but with power to them that escalates as the song runs on. The riffs are strong and lead into an appropriately wailing solo given the song title. The rhythm section is solid but manages to find its way into the spotlight at points. And the whole thing is only just over four minutes in length.

What's more, the band take that as a template and promptly knock out another bunch of songs that check off most of the same criteria. Differences do show up though. Call to Arms finds points to quieten down, presumably to allow the audience to join in when they play it live. Devil in Disguise is slower and has a neatly heavy midsection that elevates it. If that hints at Black Sabbath, then Down the Hatch underlines that connection, though Bruwer has little in common with any of Sabbath's many singers.

Hilariously, Heaven & Hell is up next, though it's not that one! It's a top notch song too but it's not the epic that its name and six minute running time might suggest. That job falls to the title track which is probably the best song on the album. It has the best riffs and a fantastic melody too. I preferred the first half to the second but Evil is a late highlight, kind of like a Danzig song during the verses and a Danzig song on speed during the chorus. Preacher wraps things up with extra fuzz and a punky edge.

I dug this album a lot. Beyond simply sounding good, it has an urgency to it that bestows energy onto the listener. Black Pistol really ought to generate some action live. Most of it also gets better on repeat listens, though the opposite holds true for me on a couple of songs on the second half. They're consistent though, so that may well be a personal thing and you might adore them more than anything else here.

Consistency is never a bad thing and I'd very much like to see if that will hold true for a second album.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Tripulante - Mensajero del tiempo (2019)

Country: Chile
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | YouTube

Tripulante may only be a trio but they sound like a much bigger band, maybe because they're ably qualified. They're from Calama in northern Chile, but they trained in the neighbouring nation of Bolivia.

Vocalist Aymarita Colque was a concert pianist who studied for a Bachelors in Music in La Paz. Julio Cesar Moya, the band's composer who provides all of the instrumentation, studied at the National Conservatory of Music in La Paz. His recorded output is wildly varied, running the gamut from hardcore punk to heavy metal via folk fusion and he also studied under the Peruvian jazzman Ernesto Loyola.

To keep Moya's resume growing, this is a power metal album with some local flavour added to the mix. Colque sings in Spanish, of course, but there are a few folky touches here and there, most obviously in a brief instrumental called Sobrevigencia, or Survival, that serves as an intro to Cruz y espada (Cross and Sword). That's not remotely enough for Mensajero del tiempo, or Messenger of Time, to count as a folk metal album, but that ethnic flavour isn't absent.

Most of what we get here is Julio Cesar Moya as a one man band. He provides the guitars, bass, keyboards and some of the drums too, performing material that he wrote. It's powerful and intricate stuff, led by his guitarwork but with textured keyboards and rumbling bass backing it up. It's telling that he never seems to be a player of one instrument, even though the guitar is clearly dominant. When he plays the keyboards, for instance, he isn't doing it just to back up his guitars, he's doing it as a keyboard player.

On some tracks, the drums provide the usual accompaniment, like on Paniri, named for a Chilean revolutionary, Tomás Paniri. On others, they keep the beat slowly but add a lot of fills, as if the idea is for the drums to be a lead instrument at this point. He doesn't take that idea too far but it's there and just noticing it is a compliment to Moya.

And then there's Aymarita Colque, who's a powerful singer who fits the power metal style wonderfully. I like her voice when she's not stretching herself at all and I like it even more when she ramps it up and allows her notes to really sustain. She has some serious pipes, as she perhaps shows us best on Ancestralidad (or Ancestrality), on which she demonstrates both a range and a power that's highly impressive. Her voice tends to be lower than we might expect for a female vocalist, but she has range and I adore the high note she keeps hitting on the second repeat of the title!

Oddly, she's not as pervasive as we might expect her to be. This album runs 35 minutes and only the two short intros are instrumental, but each time I listen through it, the more it shifts from a regular vocal led album to an instrumental affair on which she shows up reasonably often to add vocals. I must say that she's a very welcome addition when she does, but the point is that the album would work without her, albeit on a utterly different level, while it couldn't exist without Moya.

In a way, this makes it the best of both worlds. It feels like an excellent instrumental album, but with the vocals of Colque a real highlight. I know that sounds ridiculous because it can't be a vocal album and an instrumental one but that's how it seems to play.

Like the Чиста Криниця album from earlier today, it's very consistent, but in its style as much as its quality. There's not a lot of variety on offer but the band do what they do well and it's hard to choose favourite tracks. I think I should shout out for Ancestralidad because Colque is so good on it, but I don't dislike anything here. Is the title track better than Cruz y espada or Como el cóndor (Like a Condor)? Who cares? They're all worth your time.

While the musicians aren't new, Tripulante are, this being their debut album only a year after coming together as a band. If they're this consistent this quickly, then I really can't wait for the next album! Let's see how they can grow!

Чиста Криниця - Храм Природи (2019)

Country: Ukraine
Style: Folk Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 8 Jun 2019
Sites: Metal Archives | Official Website | VK | YouTube

Folk metal is such a versatile genre that I really shouldn't be surprised at the next album I find any more, but when I slapped on a folk metal album by a band from the Ukraine, I really wasn't expecting to hear a harp dancing in front of the metal backing of the opening track. Храм природи does translate to Temple of Nature, so it fits, but I dug it a lot and it really grabbed my attention. For a while, it's entirely instrumental but, when vocalist Ruslan joins in and runs through three different styles in all of five seconds, he hooked me completely and I knew I had to review this.

I'll mention him now because the lead vocalist is usually the focal point of a band and he kind of isn't, really, even though he's really good at what he does. His first utterance sounds like a death growl but he raises it into an old school heavy metal style and ends up in symphonic territory. He wails in fine form on Непотопаючий корабель, or A Drowning Ship, exhibiting rather an impressive range. He could easily dominate a band if he wanted to but that's not what he does here.

If the focal point isn't the lead vocalist, then it's the lead guitarist, of course, right? Well, wrong. Again, Volodimir Galaida does precisely what he needs to do, but the guitars here appear to be part of the rhythm section, a solid wall in front of which the more unusual instruments strut their stuff and even solo as needed. Some of those seem to be stringed, whether they're harps or lutes or what have you, so I presume that at least some of them are here courtesy of Galaida but I'm only seeing him listed as guitar and there are less guitar solos here than I expected.

Whatever isn't Galaida is surely the work of Tim Hresvelg on keyboards, who stood out to me. The real question here is about which is which and I have little idea. I would expect that the extended keyboard solo in Доки падала краплина, or Until a Drop Fell, is Hresvelg, as is the melodic line that dominates Непотопаючий корабель. However, is that Hresvelg on harpsichord on Сонячне місто (Sunny City) or could it be Galaida on zither? Keyboards are so versatile nowadays and I'm no expert on ethnic eastern European instruments.

The point is that Hresvelg is never entirely satisfied with adding textures or layers like most keyboard players. When he does just that on Мертві дощі, or Dead Rains, it feels like he's holding back. He sees his keyboard as a lead instrument, like he's in a seventies prog rock band. My assumption is that a lot of the textures here come from him introducing other sounds, like the pipes on Велика подорож, or Great Trip, and the woodblocks on Доки падала краплина that sound like they were borrowed from Martin Denny.

The other thing that threw me here is the fact that this doesn't sound like a folk metal album at all, except on Доки падала краплина, where things cut loose into an ethnic dance for a while. For the most part, this is a metal album, pure and simple, that merely brings in folk instrumentation to take the lead rather a lot. In other words, this isn't a metal band playing folk music, like the Finns with their drinking songs, it's a metal band playing metal music with some folk instruments as an integral part of their sound. I like that.

I like this album too. I hadn't heard of Чиста Криниця before and I'm unable to translate it, beyond Chysta Krynycya, which doesn't mean anything to me. However, they've been around for a while, since 2005 under this name and for another six years under others, initially Bad Dreams, then Dead Dreams and, for most of that period, Morose Months of Melancholy. That seems like an odd name because there's not much doom here. Maybe there was early last decade.

I can see myself listening to this a lot, but I also have the opportunity to follow the band backwards, because this is their sixth album, coming three years after Азовець. Their trend seems to be to wait three years to release a new album, then knock out another a year later. If they hold to that, we ought to expect another one in 2020 and I'll be watching out for it.

I'll wrap up by pointing out that it's a deceptive album. I was going with a 7/10 because it's clearly good stuff, but then I realised that I'd flagged almost the entire album as highlight tracks. A couple more listens and this promptly became my first 8/10 for July. And I'm not done exploring it yet!

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Gone Rogue - Resolve (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Official Website | YouTube

Gone Rogue are too contemporary in sound to really count as another New Wave of Classic Rock band, as their influences are clearly more from the nineties and noughties than the seventies or eighties. I'm sure there are a whole lot of comparisons to be made, but my years of listening to KUPD in the car mid-last decade to keep the kids happy blur together. They would catch them all.

The first I recognised was on the opener, Shadows, because there's a lot of Audioslave in it, not only because of the clear but grunge-tinged vocals of Oddgeir Søvik but because of patient backing from a band which feels slower than it is even when it raises the pace. There's some System of a Down on Out of Time, a nod to hardcore on Curtain Call and some Nickelback crooning on Bound. At this point, we're merely four songs in and a cynic would start to wonder if Gone Rogue planned to mimic their way through a list of their favourite bands.

I think that's unfair because none of these songs, except perhaps Shadows, are only reminiscent of one band's style. These boys from Norway take their collection of influences, combine them and transform them into something of their own. This isn't their first album, that being 2013's Home, but I have to wonder what it sounds like because the maturity of the songwriting here is notable. It's thoughtful and patient and careful, but it doesn't forget the emotion needed to make it work.

Just check out a song like Onyx to see why. It's almost the longest song on the album, but it still falls short of five minutes so it's hardly an epic. It is, however, a beautifully constructed piece of music, driven by Anders Henriksen's prominent but minimalist bass and Ole Christian Gridset's drums, which are intricate without ever becoming impossible. They build with Søvik like a Tool song but, just as its getting going, it slows down for pensive guitars and the rest of the band rejoin slowly but emphatically.

Trials and Errors is another example. It has a Tool vibe during the verses too, as it shimmies with minimalist bass and complex rhythms, over which a confident Søvik holds court. It flirts with prog though during sections in which it almost feels like we're being bathed by cymbals. This album isn't ever as heavy as it is at the start of Trials and Errors but the song gets very soft too. The journey there and back is a good one.

I liked the second half more than the first, not because it features better songs but because those songs flow better. The first half often feels like a set of singles, decent ones but ones that come from different times, whereas the second half feels like a coherent side of an album. Grasping Straws sets it into motion and Onyx makes us realise it. In Hindsight and Two Souls play along well, the latter setting things up nicely for Trials and Errors to wrap it all up with style.

I've come to dislike a lot of the big names of the noughties, partly because they were so ruthlessly commercial and partly because I got bludgeoned with their most famous songs and got really tired of them. However, there were a number of less famous bands that never broke into the massively restricted playlists of the ClearChannel stations and so never tweaked our last nerves, instead lying safely in obscurity until we find them again.

Gone Rogue are not one such band because they didn't get together until 2003 and didn't release anything until the Essence of Absence EP in 2010, but it feels like they're kin to those maybe soon-to-be rediscovered bands for more than one reason. They're really good at what they do and, discovering that a decade on makes us wonder about who didn't tell us about them. It feels like someone will, at some point, and we'll get upset with them for not doing so sooner.

Oh, and the history page on their website is absolutely joyous. Go read it and improve your mood.

Bewitcher - Under the Witching Cross (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Black/Speed Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | YouTube

Playing after Varkan on Friday at Club Red are Bewitcher, a black/speed band from Portland, OR. They also issued an album this year, their second after a self-titled effort in 2016. I was intrigued as to how they would balance the two genres and that stayed fascinating throughout.

It starts out pretty solidly on the black metal side. There's an ambient but creepy little intro which transforms into a wall of sound and the vocals have a little shriek in them. The songs clearly point the way to lyrical content; what else would Savage Lands of Satan, In the Sign of the Goat or Frost Moon Ritual be about? Yeah, this sounds like black metal. The speed side comes in late in the song with a neat stop/start section during a solo.

But they slow down much more over the remaining tracks to become more of a heavy/power metal band with both the expected genres taking a back seat.

Hexenkrieg, in particular, shows other priorities. There's a lot more speed than black but it's done in a really old school way, as if this was a Raven cover. Never mind 1988, it would be more 1978 if it wasn't for the shrieky vocals. There are points where it sounds like Iron Maiden (the song) and it would take very little work to translate it into early NWOBHM. Just add some Di'Anno, I think.

The title, as black as it sounds, betrays those NWOBHM influences too. If I threw out lyrics like, "Metal heart, metal soul; drink from the chalice of rock 'n' roll", from which year would you think the associated song came? I wouldn't call this track speed metal, even though it's metal that's played at a fast pace. Just listen to early Maiden again and a lot of this will start to seem different to what we know as speed metal. This is more like frenetic NWOBHM, like the middle of Prowler or early Phantom of the Opera, than what someone like Agent Steel or early Helloween would have recorded.

Frankly, as the album runs on, it's only the vocals from the rather subtly named Unholy Weaver of Shadows & Incantations that keep black metal in our minds at all. Not that a name like that would land him a slot in a boy band, but I'm sure that isn't why he sometimes shortens it to Mateo von Bewitcher. The point is that, unless we pay attention to the lyrics, his voice is representing the side of black metal pretty much on his own.

His cohort in crime has just as subtle a moniker: he tends to be known as Infernal Magus of Nocturnal Alchemy, though it's sometimes simplified into just Andreas Magus. Mr. Weaver takes care of the guitarwork as well as the vocals and some of the drums, while Mr. Magus handles bass and whatever's left in drum duties. I presume that Bewitcher will pressgang another body into service for all this to work on stage. I assume that they only have a pair of arms each and want their drums to be live.

I liked this album from my first listen but it's too short. When Rome is on Fire wraps up with fade out chanting, rather than Nero and his fiddle, we're just getting our teeth into proceedings and older listeners will be wondering if it's time to turn the record over yet, only to find that the instrumental Frost Moon Ritual is it for the album. There are seven songs presented here, with only two of them over five minutes and four of them under four.

That means that we have less than half an hour of music, just a hint more than Reign in Blood, which did, at least, have the courtesy of never slowing down or allowing us time to breathe. Under the Witching Cross slows down a lot for a band who play speed metal and we never run out of breath. The good news is that it's good stuff and there are no poor tracks here at all, let alone bad ones. I guess it's no mistake to leave us wanting more.

After Frost Moon Ritual, I searched YouTube for some live Killers era Maiden and, sure enough, it sounded rather familiar after this. The vocals are very different, of course, but the rest isn't too far adrift, and that's hardly a bad sound to emulate. Now, let's see if Bewitcher can make it big without having to hire Bruce Dickinson.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

The Crazy World of Arthur Brown - Gypsy Voodoo (2019)

Country: United Kingdom
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 26 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Official Website | Twitter | Wikipedia

Sometimes it seems like the world contains only two kinds of people in the world: those who have heard of Arthur Brown and those who haven't. Maybe a third makes sense too: those who thought he was a novelty singer who had a big hit with Fire and never did anything else ever again. Well, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, in its original form, only lasted four years, from 1967 to 1970, so had ceased to be before I was even born, but his name just won't go away.

Even today, my son was showing me some Avatar videos, the Swedish band who will be supporting Babymetal on their upcoming American tour, and Johannes Eckerström looks like yet another vocalist who took a page from the Arthur Brown playbook, even if he translated it through Marilyn Manson. Without an Arthur Brown, there wouldn't be an Alice Cooper, something the latter has freely acknowledged, let alone a Marilyn Manson or any of those black metal bands in corpsepaint.

But hey, image isn't everything. Given that the Crazy World of Arthur Brown is apparently back with a new album, something that shocked me until I found out that they've been back since 2000 with a consistent line-up, how do they sound over half a century after Fire? Well, given that some of you only know that one song and the rest of you have never even heard of Arthur Brown, I'd better get imaginative.

If I suggest that Brown was and is a showman, you're probably thinking about a stage show, but it filters into his style. Everything is a production, the way it was with creators such as Screaming Jay Hawkins or Dr. John the Night Tripper and continues to be with Tom Waits today, so that you can't separate their songs from their performances and you're not likely to want to.

Radiance, for example, is less of a song and more of a happening, with Brown playing the spirit guide as we commune on acid. It's a real change for the album, which had been varied but rock-oriented in its first half. The second features songs like Love and Peace in China, a political song that ends in spaced out territory too, both in the sense of acid and aliens. The Kissing Tree is more poetry translated into music, a direction that describes much of the second half. These are much more akin to Spontaneous Apple Creation, the strangest song on that first Arthur Brown album from 1968, than its most famous track.

Talking of which, Brown also reprises the double act of Fire Poem and Fire from that album, in a reinvention of each that expands them and updates them. The former, sans its original fanfare intro, is performance art narration without associated visuals. The latter is both better and worse than the version we know, oddly given that fresh takes of old material tend to either suck or succeed wildly.

This take is less energetic but more mature, less urgent but more textured, less wild but more inventive. Brown himself clearly has far less breath to work with and he doesn't remotely have his old range or power, but he's aged with a knowing twinkle in his eye. The lack of heavy organ work from Vincent Crane, who went on to form Atomic Rooster, turns out to be a huge deal but the new arrangement isn't without a set of new discoveries. I liked it.

The question is how much I liked the rest of the album. Gypsy Voodoo has a rocking Dr. John vibe, while The Mirror sounds like an attempt at a David Bowie style. The King is the most playful of a bunch of playful songs here. These are interesting and set the first half into a particular mindset. And then the second half goes somewhere completely different, back into the sixties and into innerspace, if not outer space.

Coherence really isn't the album's strong point but, frankly, I doubt that Arthur Brown cares about that too much. I'm sure there are reasons why he doesn't front the Completely Straightforward World of Arthur Brown and that is one reason why he's as welcome in 2019 as he was in 1968.

And, as I mentioned, he's actually been back for a while. The band was only around for four years in its original incarnation but Brown reformed it in 2000 and it's remained in place with a consistent line-up ever since. Nobody's left the band in that time, though Nina Gromniak was added as a third guitarist in 2011. I'd be really interested in seeing how this band plays live nowadays!

Varkan - Varkan (2019)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Official Website | Twitter | YouTube

I've talked up a few bands lately like Mystik who unashamedly sound as if a time machine had shown up out of nowhere and transported them forward from the mid- to late-eighties to now. Varkan are another and they're from right here in Phoenix. This, their debut album, came out back in March but I'm on it now because they're opening up for Holy Grail at Club Red on Friday night and I hope to be there. No, I'm not going to Wacken, I'm going to see Varkan.

Like Blackstone Puppets, they sound like the sort of session band I heard a lot on the Friday Rock Show back in the eighties, albeit in a different way. Rather than demonstrating their versatility by playing different styles in their twenty minutes of airtime, Varkan are confident enough in what they do that they can just stick to their style of choice and trust in their talent. The complex constructions of songs like The Revenge of the Black Queen are reminiscent of those from session bands that vanished after maybe one album but who crop up thirty years on in Facebook threads as favourites of fans who wished they'd stayed together and done more.

Let's hope that Varkan stay together and do more because there's enough on this album to warrant it. They're a heavy metal band with a taste for that old NWOBHM style and occasionally what came before, but who also like speed and aren't averse to ramping up the tempo once in a while. Iron Maiden are the most obvious influence, but Nocturnal Pollutions starts out like Judas Priest and there are less well known bands in here too, like Toranaga and Elixir and late eighties Cloven Hoof. They're led as much by the melodic guitars of Dominic Scarano and Alec Damiano as the powerful vocals of the latter, which tend to be buried a bit too far into the mix.

The early songs are decent on all counts, but they don't shine as brightly as later ones. Divided States and Shadow Self feature worthy melodies, nice guitars, whether soloing or supporting, and very lively drums from Michael Rodriguez. Eclipse of My Soul is a weaker song but it sparks up halfway and demonstrates how strong this band is instrumentally with a fast section in the middle. Rats from a Sinking Ship does something similar, but it's also better throughout, with memorable riffs and melodic lines, plus good vocals from Damiano. She's as much Messiah Marcolin as Bruce Dickinson at points.

To my mind, this is where the album kicks into high gear and it stays there for a few tracks. The strongest tracks may well be the four in the middle, even if Nocturnal Pollutions sounds like it was recorded in only one take and could have done with some of the guitars redone. I really like the way that the chorus loops. The Revenge of the Black Queen is the longest song on the album and it may well be the best, with emphatic delivery from Damiano, a gloriously chugging midsection and intriguing drumming from Rodriguez, as he seems to be playing two kits at once. The Wound Never Heals wraps up the quartet of highlights with style, the other contender for best track here and certainly my current favourite.

That doesn't mean that Varkan are done. The patient build of Born on Samhain with a simple but very effective riff, bouncy drums and a keyboard layer, is still to come. So is a new version of Filthy Human Race, which constituted their 2016 demo. There's even a neat little piano outro to nudge up to the three quarters of an hour mark.

I liked this a lot and it got better on a second listen too. The most overt downside is the production. The vocals are far too buried, with the backing vocals bizarrely louder, and the drums are sometimes distorted, such as on The Revenge of the Black Queen. A couple of songs could have been tightened up a little too, like Eclipse of My Soul.

Never mind the perceived lesser stature of the opening slot on Friday, I'm going to see Varkan as much as anyone else on that bill!

Monday, 1 July 2019

Nocturnal Breed - We Only Came for the Violence (2019)

Country: Norway
Style: Black/Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook | Instagram | Metal Archives | Wikipedia

Nocturnal Breed have never been the most prolific band. They formed in Oslo in 1996, but this is only their sixth studio album and their fourth in this millennium. Fans must be celebrating, because this only took five years to follow its predecessor, unlike the seven that has become almost traditional. That's far from busy for a band who never split up.

I've heard them before, here and there, but don't recall them standing out. This album, however, blisters and I suddenly wonder what I've been missing. They make an unholy racket, which I think they'd take as a real compliment, given that they merge black metal into their core speed metal sound, overt in the vocals of S. A. Destroyer, some of the lyrics, and in the occasional hyperspeed blast from drummer Tex Terror.

Once I got used to the sound, heard speed metal over everything though. The opener, Choke on Blood, reminds of Sodom, as they often do. The title track has that buzzsaw sound that I remember from bands like Razor and Exciter in the early eighties, but with the benefits of excellent modern production and a real urgency that reminds of punk and brings us back to Sodom again.

What's most interesting is how they don't really move back and forth between the two genres. Occasionally black metal wins out, like on the wall of sound in War-Metal Engine, but mostly they just combine the sounds. That means the fast paced assault of speed metal but with wilder vocals that go beyond even the punkier thrash bands. Destroyer often sounds like a cross between Martin Walkyier's Sabbat days and Schmier from Destruction.

As the album runs on, the clinical speed sound gives way somewhat to a wild thrash sound. Desecrator especially fits that bill, because it's a gorgeous mosh pit song. It's a blistering two and a half minutes of driving rhythms, a neat solo, pauses and escalations, the works. It's fantastic stuff and it has to be my favourite track on the album.

Just to confuse, there's a heavy/power influence here too, as we discover on the delightfully titled Sharks of the Wehrmacht (I'd pay to see that movie). It kicks off with a riff worthy of classic Accept, though Destroyer doesn't sound remotely like Udo Dirkschneider, with his banshee shrieks of vocals. He's really lively though, relishing everything the way Cronos did but with that Walkyier intonation and theatricality.

I'm really digging these modern bands and their modern production taking on the extreme metal of the early eighties. They're making me want to go back and work through a bunch of my vinyl from that era to refresh myself on how much fun it all was back then. There's plenty of early Bathory in War-Metal Engine, some Agent Steel in the groove of A Million Miles of Trench, even a little Mercyful Fate on Can't Hold Back the Night.

The vocals often distract from comparisons but these songs are unashamedly old school and their energy can't be denied. I'm having a blast this year immersing myself in the variety of what's coming onto the market, but every old school release like this suggests that I should go backwards to 1983 or 1984, right before I discovered what rock music was, and explore what I may have missed back then or rediscover what I've forgotten. This is fun!

Solar Corona - Lightning One (2019)

Country: Portugal
Style: Psychedelic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 3 May 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram

It was four minutes into the opening track, Love is Calling, that I fell in love with Solar Corona. It had found an interesting groove anyway, slow but not doomy, patient and spacy. If it wasn't so heavy, it could have been the beginning to a Tangerine Dream epic. Three minutes in, it threatens to get a lot more intense but it holds back a little to build tension. And then, when it hits the halfway mark, it ratchets up to high gear and truly comes alive.

I think the difference between the two halves of that track is that, for the first half I was listening to the music but for the second I was taken on a trip somewhere and I experienced the song. Where it took me, I can't really say but it was a wild journey to somewhere where everything was in motion, a feeling not unlike the cover art as an animated gif.

I know where Speedway took me. As the title suggests, it feels like I joined a whole phalanx of bikers to peel out of somewhere meaningless and explore the open road. And by road, I'm not sure we were on a surface but maybe off on a ray of light into the cosmos. There's certainly a lot of space rock in here but I got an Armageddon vibe too, if you remember the Keith Relf outfit from the early seventies. It does slow down a little after a while but stays involved.

If we weren't already thinking about Lemma era Hawkwind, we'd surely start when Rebound kicks off. It's a bass led ride into nowhere, appropriate to follow Speedway. Then, a few minutes in, it stops entirely and starts up as a completely different track with a completely different sound. Suddenly, we're listening to a Pink Floyd track we've never heard before, complete with a saxophone, taken from some alternate universe Dark Side of the Moon that we haven't heard before.

If this is the quietest the album gets, Drive-In is surely the most vehement assault on the senses. It's an intense jam that starts intense, calms down for a little while and then gets even more intense. It's a frantic, violent run and we celebrate making it out alive by relaxing a little during Beehive with its suitably swirling groove and some more sax appeal. The song titles are highly appropriate.

At twelve and a half minutes, Gold Ray is emphatically the longest track on the album and it wraps things up with another wild and experimental trip to parts unknown, where all those masked wrestlers come from. For much of its running time, it's one of those jams where we just know that it's all going to fall apart completely any moment now, but somehow it never does because the band know each other inside and out and they keep it together.

This track also fades out slowly, so much so that the last twenty seconds are silence or as close to it as makes no odds. Gold Ray could easily be seen or felt as a glorious explosion. I'm not sure if it's meant to be internal, an attempt to blow our minds, or external, like a star going nova. Either way, it tries to harness the complex strands of reality to be a dance partner as everything boils magnificently away into the ether. One reason I feel that the album works so well is because it does exactly the same thing but on a larger scale.

Solar Corona were formed in Barcelos in Portugal in 2012 and they're a power trio, enhanced by the presence of Julius Gabriel on sax. Rodrigo Carvalho is the ostensible leader and all the guitar work belongs to him. I presume that drummer Peter Carvalho is related. José Roberto Gomes provides the prominent bass. I'd love to call them out for special praise but they're so cohesive that it's difficult to think of any of them individually. Immerse yourself and see what I mean!

Friday, 28 June 2019

Jess by the Lake - Under the Red Light Shine (2019)

Country: Finland
Style: Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 7 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook

This album was an eye opener for me, because it wasn't remotely what I was expecting. The Jess in the band's name is a vocalist called Jasmin Saarela, who's best known as the Jess in Jess and the Ancient Ones, an occult rock group that quickly showed up when I started researching modern psychedelic rock and being open to jumping sideways. She's a powerful, confident singer and this really highlights that, but it does it in surprising ways.

And no, I'm not just talking about moments like the break in Freezing Burn that reminds me of a section of Marillion's Grendel so much that I started to sing along. "Hounds freeze in silence bewitched by the reptile spell..." Nah, wrong song. What I'm talking about is the fact that the opening couple of numbers remind mostly of Amy Winehouse and so does much of the rest of the album, even if Jess describes it as "witchy melancholic space rock".

The change in band name reflects that this isn't an occult rock album but a singer/songwriter release, just not the type that qualifies as good country music, twee pop music or even thoughtful folk. It's gospel infused pop/rock with soulful and theatrical edges, the sort of thing that Adele might sing nowadays if the songs were a little catchier and orchestral. The title track has a sort of revival feel by the time it wraps up.

The Wait changes pace in interesting ways. It's driven by keyboards instead of guitar, the former being bouncy and the latter being jagged. The bulk of it reminded me of Natalie Farr while the later section driven by voice over minimalist keyboards reminds of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra. All these artists are worthy of exploration but they're not who I tend to expect to be thrown up as comparisons here at Apocalypse Later.

That trend continues. Halo (Ghosts in the Flames) starts minimalist too, in a sort of Leonard Cohen vein, but it really builds. While this is very much an album designed to showcase Jess's voice, the band are tight and unusual. They've found that glorious balance point where they're supporting as they were hired to do, but in an absorbing and worthwhile way. Take away Jess's voice entirely and this would still be captivating, especially on building songs like this and Interstellar. With Jess, of course, it's even more so.

Legacy Crown is the real standout here, not just because it's great (though it really is) but because it finds a very different groove. Instead of Amy Winehouse, it feels like Nick Cave singing on a thoughtfully slow rock tune with tinges of voodoo surf. There's a song on Pink Floyd's The Wall that's stayed with me forever but is often overlooked; it's called Empty Spaces and it has a slow but inexorable and thoroughly invulnerable build that I've not heard anywhere else until now. And that feel is accompanied by much more here, including a tribal vibe and a very knowing lead vocal.

My Hands wisely goes upbeat because Legacy Crown is a hard song to follow. There's Nina Simone here but over a modern dark pop backing. That leaves a nine minute track called Interstellar which really wants to be the epic of the album and would be if Legacy Crown didn't develop so magnificently. It builds patiently but firmly, eventually reaching that point of ecstasy we know from Fleetwood Mac's The Chain where the band remain achingly steady while the guitar goes wild.

I've listened through this a few times now and it keeps getting better as the songs find their way into my bones. Initially, I was thinking about a 7/10 because it's clearly a good album but it's definitely worth an 8/10. I wonder if it'll grow enough to make a 9/10 in the future. Swept by Natalie Farr did that for me and this may well follow suit for similar reasons.

Carolina IV - The Color of Your Soul (2019)

Country: Brazil
Style: Symphonic Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 15 Jun 2019
Sites: Facebook

When you name your band from a song on Angra's Holy Land album, it ought to be pretty clear what you're going to sound like. I'm not seeing any line-up connection to Angra but Carolina IV hail from the nearby city of Jaú, three and a half hours northwest of Angra's home in São Paulo.

I'm not finding much other information on the band, even on their Facebook page, not when they were founded or why they have a compass built into their logo, just a line-up and a list of influences that includes Angra (shock horror), Dream Theater, Nightwish and Epica. None of these are surprising.

The first track proper, The Great Ones are All Dead, hints at something not entirely traditional, which is odd, because this is a traditional symphonic metal album for the most part. It's just that this track, sedate in nature, alternates between a harsh male voice I can't identify and the lead singer, Vivian Capobianco, who hits a high note five minutes in that underlines why she's the focal point here.

She's really good, but this track doesn't give her much opportunity to prove that. That's Something, a couple of songs later, which is a real showcase for her operatic talents. What stood out to me most with the opener was the care by which it was constructed and a strange instrumental section four minutes in that sounds like vibrato for keyboards. I have no idea what they were doing but I liked it.

The Forge feels like the defining song on this album for Carolina IV. It has a similar tone to its predecessor but gives Capobianco more opportunity and adds some heavier riffs to keeps things interesting. This band can get heavy and they do precisely that with Get Out of the Abyss, which is welcome after the softer Something and before the piano intro to Inside Your Soul.

This track sits in between the others but it has real character in how those operatic vocals are put to use and how the band transition away from them to an irresistable headbanging riff and some more harsh vocals. Everyone seems to get their moment on this song, including swirling keyboards from Diego de Fábio and a nice guitar solo from Vinni Azevedo.

The Great Feeling kind of sums up everything that's gone before, in an epic framework of nine minutes. All the components I've mentioned thus far from earlier tracks show up here too, plus others I haven't like the whispering intro from The Forge. Unfortunately, while it's performed impeccably, it's also overlong and overdone. Fortunately the album as a whole isn't, serving instead as a decent introduction to what this band is about. In the absense of evidence to the contrary, I'm assuming that this is their debut.

Every member of this band is clearly very good at what they do, but I'm not sure that the songs here serve them best. What's needed is a follow up with catchier tracks that add up to a more coherent and consistent release. It's not that the songs are bad and I did enjoyed this album but I think I'd be hard pressed to identify a standout track or define the band on terms other than through comparisons.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Örk Bastards - Warmongers of the Gloomy Lands (2019)

Country: Russia
Style: Thrash Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 Apr 2019
Sites: Bandcamp | Metal Archives | VK

No, I'm not going to pass up an opportunity to listen to an album by a band who call themselves Örk Bastards! How glorious is that? This bunch are from Petrozavodsk, which is so far northwest in Russia that it's almost Finland, and they play their thrash in short bursts with a back to basics punk vibe and a singer who could easily moonlight in a black metal band. This album has ten tracks and it still only just nudges past the half an hour mark.

If the name didn't sell me anyway, there are intriguing song titles to add interest. Green People of Barsoom has to be about the native Martians in the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I wonder if the band are fans of the original novels or whether they were part of why the Disney movie did so well in Russia. I presume 32 Secrets of Vimaana is about the ancient Indian spaceships detailed in the epic Vedas. And then there's Rabid She-Wolf and her Furious Blade, which sounds so glorious that someone should turn it into a short film and submit it to my film festival. These are subjects close to my heart!

And then these Örk Bastards blister through their intro and I was hooked. I have to say that I prefer cleaner vocals on my thrash but A.N.'s harsh voice fits well with their simpler punky thrash sound. There's nothing fancy here on an album that's the precise opposite of progressive metal. It's a routine collection of fast tempo riffs with a few transitions and it's not going to blow anyone's mind, but it's done with passion and urgency and efficiency. This is the sort of thrash that you throw on at high volume and let it just clean you out.

That's not to say that it's not played well because it is. The whole album's worthwhile from the simple but effective riffs that drive Baptized by Smoke and Fire and Green People of Barsoom to the final few tracks which are oddly my favourites. 32 Secrets of Vimaana nails a blistering pace. Travellers in Time adds a bouncy feel which is fun at high speed. And then they add a neat melodic line to Obsidian Shining, which really got my neck moving.

In between, there are some slower songs, like the aforementioned Rabid She-Wolf and Her Furious Blade, which is closer to NWOBHM than thrash, but it's the fast songs that make this work so well. The band find a tempo at which to chug along for each song and then speed it up because that's what thrash is all about. It's good old fashioned heads down speed and I merely wish I knew who was in the band that plays it.

I believe that A.N. also plays bass and the drummer is a gentleman by the name of Naastmorkh, but there are guitars here too and I have no idea who's responsible for those. Then again, they don't get as much to do as would be the case on most albums. When a solo erupts on Obsidian Shining, we wonder where it came from because there just aren't many of those on this album. I have to say that it's one of the only two songs that exceeds four minutes, so maybe they thought they had time. There was another one during the last quarter of Green People of Barsoom but A.N. shrieks over most of it.

This is good stuff on a first listen, when all that leaps out is the speed, but it's good stuff on repeat too, when we let the riffs sink deep into our brains and we realise that it starts good and keeps on getting better. The only downside for me were the deep shrieky vocals, which aren't bad but also aren't my preference. If they're yours, then this might be exactly what you need to clean out your system at the end of a long day.

Now, given that they've been around since 2007 but this is their debut, how about a follow up a little sooner than 2031?